Published DateTo the editor,
The developing battle between the Belknap County Commissioners and the Belknap County Convention is quite interesting. It started at a joint meeting on Monday when the convention voted that the commissioners are not to move money from one appropriated item to another without obtaining the written approval of the executive committee of the convention.
The commissioners insist that this action is improper under New Hampshire statutory law and that it will unduly restrict the commissioners' ability to manage the affairs of the county.
Both sides seem to agree that the answer lies in the wording of New Hampshire Revised Statute 24:14 I. The commissioners have now announced that they are obtaining an expert's clarification of the statutory language, presumably in the hope or expectation of an opinion that the convention has exceeded its statutory authority.
My own response to this dispute was to examine the statutory language that has given rise to the heated debate. It reads: "The county convention may require that the county commissioners obtain written authority from the executive committee before transferring any appropriation or part thereof under RSA 24:15." Subsection III of the same statute delineates the right of the commissioners to move money from one line item to another as follows: "Unless otherwise ordered by the county convention, under RSA 24:14, whenever it appears that the amount appropriated for a specific purpose will not be used in whole or in part for such purpose, the county commissioners may use such sum to augment other appropriations, if necessary, provided the total payments for all purposes do not exceed the total sum of appropriations in any year made by the county convention." RSA 24:15 III.
It would appear from the quoted statutory language that the New Hampshire legislature has provided the answer to the dispute, not once but twice. First, the law allows the convention to require the commissioners to obtain written authority from the executive committee (of the convention) before transferring any appropriation. In other words, the commissioners may not transfer any appropriation without written authority from the convention, through its executive committee, if the convention is so inclined. Next, the law allows the commissioners to move funds from one line item to another "unless otherwise ordered by the county convention." The operative phrase here is "unless otherwise ordered". Put differently, if the county convention orders otherwise, the commissioners may not move money around. The power of the commissioners to move the money thus depends entirely on the consent of the convention.
Throughout my career I was taught and later taught others a basic rule of statutory interpretation: READ THE LANGUAGE OF THE STATUTE. If the critical language of the statute does not suggest competing interpretations, then there is nothing to interpret. In other words, the statute speaks for itself.
In reviewing the statutory language involved in the dispute between the commissioners and the convention, I have looked, and looked again, for possible competing interpretations, and I have found none. Both of the quoted provisions indicate that the convention may require the commissioners to obtain consent from the convention (through executive committee approval) to move funds from one line item to another.
It should be noted that the convention is not required to impose this restriction on the commissioners. Indeed, prior Belknap County Conventions apparently chose not to exercise this power, thus allowing past commissions to move money freely from one line item to another. To the current commissioners, removal of that prerogative is so disppointing that they feel it must be illegal. Let us all hope that they do not compound the problem by spending taxpayer money in a fruitless quest for a legal opinion contrary to the clear language of the statute.