Selectmen & library trustees will give lawyers a shot a solving longstanding Meredith dispute

MEREDITH — After seeking to negotiate a "memorandum of understanding" for the past four years, the Board of Selectmen and Library Trustees yesterday agreed to refer their differences to their respective attorneys in hopes they can fashion a compromise.

The disparities between the personnel policies proposed by the trustees and prescribed by the town remain the outstanding bone of contention. The trustees, relying on state statutes granting them authority over the management of the library, have reserved the right to pursue personnel policies, including the hiring, discipline and firing of staff, at variance with those of the town and without the oversight of the town manager.

Town Manager Phil Warren sad yesterday that the town is the employer. "The paychecks are signed by the Town of Meredith," he declared. He explained that the town attorney has advised him that should litigation arise involving a member of the library, there is a risk the town could find itself "on the hook." He said the attorney did not say that the town could not accede and grant the trustees authority over library personnel, but did say there was a risk in doing so. "He told me there is a risk. Beware." Warren said.

Selectman Lou Kahn, a retired attorney, noted that every lawyer can always find risks to warn clients against, but cannot always tell them how they be avoided. He suggested the selectmen agree "this is a risk we're to take."

"This is becoming ridiculous," interjected Selectman Carla Horne, who chairs the Selectboard.

Rhetta Colon, who chairs the trustees, said that she she has been wrestling with the issue throughout her tenure and simply wants to reach agreement on the memorandum of understanding. She suggested referring the draft memorandum, together with the personnel policies of the town and library, to the two attorneys with a request that they resolve the outstanding issues.

NOTE: Town Manager Phil Warren said that the town has agreed to remove two fuel storage tanks at the Department of Public Works yard by the end of the year at the direction of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES). Although the town is planning to construct a new public works facility on the site, Warren said that in the interim between removing the tanks and building the facility the DPW will be without fuel storage. He said that the life of the tanks could be extended by replacing the piping, but that would cost $75,000 and the town would bear the cost of their ultimate removal. Meanwhile, the DES will contribute $25,000 to removing them along any contaminated soil. Warren said that Mike Faller, director of public works, has begun exploring arrangements with local fuel vendors to supply the DPW in the interim.

Belmont Selectboard agrees to put the usual $750,000 in road fund

BELMONT — Selectmen voted unanimously last night to recommend a special article on the 2015 warrant that would appropriate the usual $750,000 for the highway maintenance capital fund and not pub $600,000 of that sum toward the restoration of the Belmont Mill.

The decision was made after the backlash selectmen got from a few residents at their December 29 meeting, when people learned the plan for 2015 was to use $600,000 that would normally go to roads toward repairs for the Belmont Mill and only put $150,000 in the highway fund for this year.

"All is not lost but the ship is sinking," said Selectman Jon Pike, referring to the historic mill and the not-to-exceed $3.6-million warrant article proposed by the selectmen to renovate the historic building into town officers.

Pike made his comment last night because Budget Committee Chair Ron Mitchell's said last week that he would only support the borrowing for the Belmont Mill if all of the cost were reflected in the bond and not moved from different town accounts like road maintenance.

Town officials had anticipated that it would cost $2.65 million to fix up the mill, however that was before an additional $600,000 in masonry work and soft-costs like electrical, mechanical and furnishings were factored in.

Selectman Ron Cormier, who argued with former selectman Donna Cilley about taking money from the roads to put toward the mill, said last night he was going to have his say and them shut up about it.

"We've been dicking around with this building for 11 years," he said. "Fix it or tear it down."

He said for all of that time, he's been hearing from residents that it would be the perfect spot for town offices but now that the time is near to make that decision, a few naysayers in town will try and stop it.

Selectmen Jon Pike noted that years ago selectmen made the decision that if they were going to repair roads they were going to repair them the right way and he feels the same way about the mill.

He said that the warrant article should go to the voters. "This is what the experts — what do you want to do?" he said.

Selectman Ruth Mooney said she thinks there are more supporters for rehabilitating the mill and converting it to town offices than either Pike or Cormier think there are. She said it goes beyond the functionality of the building and she, too, has heard for 15 years that residents want to see it used as town offices. "I haven't heard any negativity," she said.

All selectmen agreed there is no point in doing it if it can't be done correctly.

Town Administrator Jeanne Beaudin reminded the board that the masonry expert told them that this repair was a 50-year fix.

Selectmen are holding a bond hearing on January 20. The Budget Committee meets tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the Corner Meeting House to act on whether or not it will support  the $3.6-million bond for the mill and the $750,000 for the highway maintenance capital fund.

County administrator has open-ended contract that grants her a year's salary if she is terminated without 'just cause'

LACONIA — The changing of the guard at the Belknap County Commission this week has cast a shadow over the future of top county officials whose relationship with the county convention during the past four years has been always tense and often acrimonious.

As agents of the outgoing commissioners, Debra Shackett and finance director Glen Waring have been swept into the controversy over the respective authority of the commission and convention over the budget. In defending the positions and pursuing the policies of the commission, their professional competence and personal integrity has been questioned by members of the convention, including Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton), who this week will take his seat on the commission along side fellow newcomer Dave DeVoy (R-Sanbornton).

Both the county administrator and finance director serve at the pleasure of the commission. However, unlike Waring, Shackett, who was appointed county administrator in June, 2008, negotiated an employment contract with commissioners in June, 2013. The contract is not limited to a fixed period of time, but instead can be terminated either with or without just cause.

Should the administrator be terminated for just cause, any severance payment would be determined by the commission. But at the same time, the contract anticipates four conditions under which it could be terminated without just cause and prescribes the severance package — including a year's pay — to be awarded to the administrator in all four cases.

The majority of the commission could vote to terminate the administrator without just cause. If the administrator resigns following an offer — either formal or informal — to do so by "a representative of the majority of the governing body," the administrator may declare the contract terminated.  Likewise, the administrator could declare the contract terminated if the county or New Hampshire Legislature amends the statutes to change the form of government as it bears on the responsibilities and authority of the administrator.

Finally, a reduction in the base salary or other financial benefit of the administrator, would represent a breach and termination of the contract, unless the percentage of the reduction was no greater than the average reduction applied to all department heads.

In 2012, the convention rejected a proposal by Representative Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), then a member of the convention, to reduce Shackett's base salary to a level equal to that of the highest paid elected official, who at the time was the county attorney. In 2013 and in 2014, the convention, then chaired by Worsman, cut her salary in the county budget, but the commission restored the funding. 

In the event the contract is terminated without just cause, the administrator would be entitled to one year's salary at the current rate of pay as well as cash value for all accrued sick leave, vacation time and paid holidays. Shackett currently earns a base salary of $106,720. In addition, for at least one year, the county would be required to pay the cost of health care for the administrator and any dependents and provide out placement services, if requested, at a cost not to exceed $10,000.

Retiring commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) declined to comment on the circumstances leading to Shackett's contract, which said are "personnel matters." He said only that such contracts are common among municipal, school and county officials employed by boards of elected officials officials.