LACONIA — New Belknap County Commissioners Dave DeVoy (R-Sanbornton) and Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) say that they don't want to delegate their authority and want to deal directly with department heads. Those managers will now report directly to them rather than through the Belknap County administrator, signifying a major break with the policies followed by the previous commissioners, who had worked to streamline county government by consolidating authority over policy and day-to-day operations of the various county departments within the administration department.
The shift in county policies was made evident at the start of the new commissioner's first meeting yesterday at the Belknap County Complex by the seating arrangements, which saw the new commissioners seated at a single table in the front of the room with Administrator Debra Shackett and her assistant Angela Bovill seated at a table at the side of the room. Both Shackett and Bovill had previously been seated at one of three tables in front of the room, alongside the commissioners.
The third seat on the commission is vacant following the resignation of Steve Nedeau (R-Meredith), who had two years remaining on his term but said he could not work with DeVoy and Burchell. The Belknap County Convention is charged with appointing a successor.
The new commissioners wasted no time going right to their expressed intent to undo many of the actions and policies of the previous commission by reinstating Mathew Logue, who had been fired last August, as administrator of the Belknap County Home. They withdrew an appeal filed by the previous commission with the New Hampshire Supreme Court of his reinstatement by the county convention's Personnel Committee.
They also directed Shackett to have the law firm of Donahue, Tucker and Ciandella, which represented the commission in its legal battle with the convention over line item budget authority, file a consent decree with Belknap County Superior Court which concurs with the decision by Judge James O'Neil III to issue a temporary injunction which prevented commissioners from transferring more than $300 between budget line items without approval of the convention's Executive Committee.
''We'd like to see the drama go away. We want to work as a team with the delegation. We see ourselves as having a complementary and not a competing role,'' said Burchell, who was elected chairman of the commission.
DeVoy was named as vice chairman and the designated spokesman for the county commissioners and will handle all media inquiries directed to the county with the exception of elected officials like the Belknap County Sheriff and Belknap County Attorney.
''He will be the chief spokesperson for our office,'' said Burchell. Both he and DeVoy said that they are committed to being totally transparent when it comes to handling county business.
DeVoy said that the commissioners are dropping the plans developed by the previous commission's jail planning committee, which called for building a new county jail based on a community corrections model at a cost most recently estimated at approximately $25 million. The jail planning committee has been relatively inactive since the county convention rejected a proposed $2.96 million bond issue for a new HVAC system for the current jail, temporary housing and a schematic plan for a new jail in June.
''The debate is over. We're looking at a rehab of the county jail and an addition,'' said DeVoy, who indicated that it met the demands of the Laconia City Council to take into account the city's tax cap in developing jail plans and also addresses concerns over a county tax increase.
Both DeVoy and Burchell said they had toured the Sullivan County jail addition in Claremont, which they said had increased programs for inmates and sharply reduced the recidivism rate, and looked with favor on having Kevin Warwick, who had worked with that county to design and build a $5.7 million 72-bed community corrections addition in 2009, to serve as a consultant for the commission and Corrections Superintendent Dan Ward in working on a plan for an addition to the Belknap County Jail. Sullivan County had originally been looking at a $38 million plan for a new jail.
The new commissioners also reversed a move made by the former commission in denying $5,200 to pay legal fees incurred by former Belknap County Register of Deeds Barbara Luther in 2011 when she was sued by the commission in an effort to make her comply with recommendations made by an auditing firm hired by the county. In 2013 the county convention appropriated $5,200 to pay Luther's fees but the former commissioners refused to authorize payment.
''She was sued in her professional capacity and had to use her own money to defend herself. That never should have happened,'' said Burchell, who said the new commission will seek a transfer of funds from the county's Executive Committee in order to pay her bill.
Responding to an inquiry by Neil Smith of the State Employees Association, which represents three of the four unions made up of county employees, commissioners said they would be open to negotiations with the unions, which are currently working without contracts, and would look to establish a committee at its next meeting to handle the negotiations.
The commission also announced a new policy on the bidding process and will now require that all bids received by the county will be sealed and opened at a public meeting.
That policy change was later questioned by Norm O'Neill, former Belknap County Human Resources Director, who said that commissioners should have availed themselves of their own administrative team's expertise before adopting the policy and asked whether or not the bidding restrictions would apply to the hiring of a consultant to help with the jail project.
O'Neill, whose questions were at first limited by Burchell before he was allowed to speak for a second time, also questioned the genesis of the agenda for yesterday's meeting, indicating that it appeared to have been prepared without public input. He also questioned a retroactive change in the county's policy on document copy fees.
Burchell said that he and DeVoy have had a number of conversations between the time they were elected in November and took their oath of office on Wednesday and wanted to bring the items they were concerned with up for action as soon as possible. He explained that the change in document copy fees was made to address concerns raised with him by a constituent, who thought they were too high.
Burchell noted that O'Neill had raised a valid question about the hiring of a consultant for the jail planning process and said that it might be restricted to a list of qualified people were the county to solicit bids. The commission plans to take that issue up at its next meeting on January 21.
The commission also expressed its opposition to the current practice of spreading the cost of executive functions across departments, which primarily applies to the administrator and finance director, whose salaries are paid in part out of the Belknap County Nursing Home budget. Burchell said that there were concerns that the process was not transparent. The administration has in the past explained the process as a way of leveraging the amount of funding from the state's Medicaid program to the county.
The commission did approve a request by new Register of Deeds Judith McGrath to appoint Susan Gagne as deputy Register of Deeds.
Burchell said that he has concerns with what he said is a structural imbalance in the county budget which needs to be addressed and that the commissioners will be working with the county convention on this year's budget. ''We want to protect as many full-time jobs as possible,'' he said.
The commissioners also made individual offices used by previous commissioners in the executive wing of the Belknap County Complex available for use by the Department of Corrections for programs. Corrections Superintendent Ward said that he might be able to use them when outside people come in but could not provide maximum security for the rooms.
New County Commissioners Dave DeVoy and Richard Burchell held their first meeting yesterday and were alone in front of the meeting room at the Belknap County Complex. (Roger Amsden/for The Laconia Daily Sun)
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