Judge rules in favor of Belknap Convention majority

LACONIA — A Belknap County Superior Court judge has ruled against a legal action brought by Democratic members of the Belknap County Convention against Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), the chairman of the convention, for permitting a member to participate by telephone in what proved a critical vote.
The suit, brought by Rep. Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton) and the other four Democrats on the convention, alleged that Worsman had violated the state's Right-To-Know law by permitting Rep. Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead) to cast a vote without first gaining approval for his participation from the entire body.
The vote was taken when the convention, then wrestling with the 2014 county budget, met in the midst of a heavy snowstorm on February 18, which delayed the assembly of a quorum until three-quarters of an hour past the appointed time of 5 p.m. Only 13 of the 18 members were present when the meeting was convened. Prior to convening the meeting Worsman arranged for Rep. Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead), who was tending to a failing roof, to participate by telephone. When the meeting opened, Worsman explained Comtois would participate by telephone and phone device was placed on the table and she spoke with him to confirm their connection.
Rep. Beth Arsenault (D-Laconia) then offered a motion to adopt the commission's proposed budget for 2014, which was second by Rep. Lisa DiMartino (D-Gilford). The members in the room divided seven-to-six in favor of the motion, but Comtois, participating by telephone, voted against and the motion failed to achieve majority support. Two weeks later, on March 4, the normal convention majority adopted its own version of the county budget.
Judge James D. O'Neill III, who heard arguments on the case on April 3, ruled Tuesday that since no one had objected to Comtois' participation at the February 18 meeting that they had allowed, within the ordinary meaning of the word, his participation, and denied the request to disallow his vote.
He also ruled that another part of the Right-To-Know law which would have required that the minutes of the meeting contain the reason why Comtois was not physically present and identify anyone else present with him at the place from which he was calling had not been violated. He noted that the minutes did say he was ''tending to a roof emergency'' and didn't identify anyone who was with him at the location from which he was calling because, presumably, there was no one else there.
The suit had originally been brought by the Democrats against Worsman and convention Clerk Jane Cormier (R-Alton). Judge O'Neill allowed the Democrats to amend the legal action to include the Belknap County Convention as a defendant.
The Convention was represented in the legal action by Attorney Barton L. Mayor of the Concord law firm of Upton and Hatfield. Legal fees for the county will be paid by the Belknap County Commissioners, who had originally asked that the convention approve a supplemental budget appropriation for the case but modified their position and agreed to pay it from the county's budget for legal expenses.