Published DateTo the editor,
On December 12, 2012 the newly elected Belknap County Convention held an organizational meeting. Presiding as temporary chair was senior member Representative Don Flanders, who said that he had consulted with the Clerk of the New Hampshire House, Karen Wadsworth, before the meeting about the procedures which should be followed. By law, the outgoing chairperson sets the time and place for the first meeting, an organizational meeting, for the newly elected convention. Further meetings, fall under the responsibility of the newly elected chairperson to schedule all meetings and sets the agenda to be notice by the new clerk.
On 10 December 2012, the first meeting took place. The newly elected members first action was to vote for "secret paper ballots" to elect its officers, which was the procedure recommended by the Clerk of the House of Representatives. The vote was unanimous to use the Secret Paper Ballots. The conventions' statutory officers including the chair and vice chair were elected in public session using paper ballots. The Executive Committee members were also elected. The next item should have been to schedule further meetings.
Rather than schedule a meeting for the mandatory public hearing for the Belknap County Commissioner's proposed 2013 annual budget, a public hearing in fact took place. Someone other than the newly elected chairperson scheduled this second meeting on the same date, time and place. The public hearing was not required for another 10 days. Who scheduled the second meeting? Who set the agenda for the same day? Who sent the required notice — since no convention clerk had been elected? (RSA 24:9-c & RSA 24:21-a, RSA 24: 23)
Following the completion of the "organizational meeting" the newly elected chair had ample time to schedule the next meeting and the agenda for the"public hearing". The last possible date for that hearing was the 19th of December 2012. They could have complied with the 7-day notice and held the public hearing in a timely manner. (RSA 24:9-c). Does habit in breaking the law, non-compliance, legalize any action?
The citizens of Belknap County should be critical of the County Convention's utilization of a secret paper ballots at their organizational meeting. The records indicate that no other N.H. county implements the use of a Secret Paper Ballot. There are no exception for the use of paper ballots that exist per RSA 91-A.
Past Belknap County Conventions have violated the Right-to-Know Law. It also is the first to self-inflict $70,000.00 in excessive taxation. Because of the rush to circumvent the Right-to-Know Law, the ensuing default budget includes $1.5 million.
The invoking of the secret paper ballot votes should come under review. This convention not only used paper ballots but apparently discarded or destroyed the ballots, possibly to prevent a recount. We asked under the Right-to-know law to review the ballots but were denied, "because the Convention voted to conduct the ballot voting in private". There is no exception under RSA 91-A for private voting. The paper ballots are part of the official minutes and are required to be retained and attached to official minutes. Who's at fault for these fatal flaws?
On 21 December, 6, a quorum of the Executive Committee held its first meeting, also ignoring the law. The quorum of the executive committee (who) shall, (but did not) elect its chairperson, vice-chairperson, and clerk. Absent that election, who called the meeting to order? Who recorded the minutes which were not immediately available on request? Are any of the end of year transfer approvals valid? Who will the three new officers be? In many N.H. counties the officer of convention are not the same officers as the Executive Committee. (RSA 24:2-a)
The Clerk of the House of Representative opinion about secret paper ballots, is based on a 41 year old Supreme Court Advisor Opinion? A request to the N.H. Attorney General regarding the Memorandum of Law is unanswered? Was the convention's solicitor consulted with regards to the Right-to Know?
The May 25, 1971, the Supreme Court Advisory opinion was in response to a House Resolution, consisting of four questions, related to House Bill 557 to amend RSA 14 by inserting 14:1-a "Roll Call" vote for the election of Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The advisory opinion was not generic but specific to the Speaker of the House of Representative: a "roll call" vote could not be mandated by LAW.
Furthermore, Robert's Rules of Order never trumps the Right-to-Know law or any laws.
Conversely, the 2008 SC Opinion not only stated; "No paper ballot in open session", but it listed exceptions: "town meetings, school district meetings and elections". If it intended to insert an exemption for "organizational" meetings for; the Speaker of the House or the County Convention it could have done so, but did not, and neither has the House or Senate amended the right-to-know law to allow secret paper ballot in open session.
Many public bodies, once elected by the voters elect their officers; such as County Commission, School Board, Police Commission, Water Commission, Planning Board, Board of Assessors and like public bodies or agencies are required to elect among themselves, a chairperson, vice-chairperson, clerk and recording secretary. All of which are post-election "organizational" elections just like the county convention, distinct from a primary or general federal election. Shall they all be allowed to implement the Secret Paper Ballot?
The N.H. Constitution, Supreme Court Opinion or laws do not and did not forbid the fundamental "roll call" vote. The Right to Know Law forbids Secret Paper Ballots. The N.H. Constitution must be read in unison with the Right to Know Law RSA 91-A3,I,(b),II,(c)
Though we agree with the outcome of the election, we cannot agree with the process. And hope judicial intervention is not necessary.
Thomas A. Tardif,