Discussion of meeting minutes leads to dispute for Belknap County Convention

CONCORD — In a brief meeting at the Statehouse this week, recorded by no fewer than four video cameras, the Belknap County Convention approved the minutes of the meeting held on March 4, which began with a dispute over the minutes of the meeting of Feb. 18, when a motion to adopt the 2014 budget recommended by the Belknap County Commissioners fell one vote short.

On the snowy evening of Feb. 18, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, delayed the start of the meeting 44 minutes for lack of a quorum. While she waited to open the meeting, she arranged for Rep. Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead), who was tending to a failing roof, to participate by telephone.

The issue before the convention was the adoption of the budget prepared by the Republican majority, which trimmed $858,350 from the budget presented by the commission. Shortly after Worsman called the meeting to order, Rep. Beth Arsenault (D-Laconia) moved to adopt the commissioners' budget. The motion failed on a tie vote, seven-to-seven, as two Republicans sided with the five Democrats in support of Arsenault's motion and Comtois, voting by telephone, joined the six Republicans present to force the deadlock.

Within the week the five Democrats asked the Belknap County Superior Court to overturn the vote, charging that Worsman violated the Right-to-Know in allowing Comtois to participate by telephone. Noting that the statute does not require the convention to allow one or members to participate by "electronic means," they  claim the decision properly rested with the convention, not the chair. Moreover, they charge that no notice was given to the convention that Comtois would be permitted to participate by telephone nor was the reason he could not be physically present recorded in the minutes as the statute requires.

When the convention next met on March 4 Worsman sought to amend the minutes of meeting of Feb. 18 to show that before the meeting was convened she and other members referred to the Right-to-Know law and discussed the procedure for allowing Comtois to participate by telephone. She proposed adding the following statement: "This was done after consulting RSA 91-A:2 with specific examination/discussion of RSA 91-A:2, III for its permissibility of having Rep. Guy Comtois participate by phone."

Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) reminded Worsman that at the time there was no quorum and not all those who were present were party to the discussion. Arsenault questioned recording a discussion that took place before the meeting in the minutes. When Worsman's motion to amend the minutes was put to a vote there was much confusion about who was and was not present when the supposed discussion occurred and therefore would be eligible to vote. Ultimately the motion failed five-to-four, with five abstentions. With an eye to the litigation, Worsman tersely noted that the minutes were approved without reference to the discussion of the Right-to-Know law prior to the meeting.

This week, when the convention addressed the minutes of the March 4 meeting, Rep. Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton) was troubled to find that the discussion of Worsman's attempt to amend the minutes of the Feb. 18 meeting, including the wording she proposed, was recorded.

After a sharp exchange between Gulick and Worsman the convention approved the minutes of the March 4 meeting by a roll call vote of 11 to 6 with one abstention.