LACONIA — When he was campaigning for state representative, voters often told Gregg Hough they didn’t appreciate being kept in the dark when the City Council decided to spend more than $1 million in taxpayer money to buy church property.
He has now introduced a bill in the New Hampshire House of Representatives to bring more sunlight to the process.
Under the state’s Right to Know Law, governmental bodies can go into a nonpublic, or private, session to discuss buying property. The idea is to prevent a property’s price from increasing when others learn of the city’s interest.
Hough’s bill (HB232) would require general discussion about buying property to be held in public, while discussion about the actual price would be held in private.
Hough noted that the City Council’s decision last year to purchase a former Catholic school and a rectory for $1.14 million was done outside the public eye. Bonds for the acquisition were listed in the budget only as “XYZ” without further explanation.
City Manager Scott Myers warned councilors not to discuss the matter in public until a joint news release could be prepared with the church.
The purchase is to allow the city to gain more than 80 public parking spots downtown.
Also, in 2019, The Laconia Daily Sun reported the city spent $342,000 on real estate without public discussion or votes at City Council meetings, or notification to the public after the land was purchased. Some of the land will be used to allow the public to launch canoes into Pickerel Pond.
Then-Mayor Ed Engler said at the time it was an oversight not to inform the public after the purchase.
The provision in the Right to Know law allowing private City Council discussion of land purchases kept the public out of the loop on these deals.
“Even though the public was upset at it, it wasn't necessarily against the law,” Hough said.
But he felt it was “sort of twisted” to use the law to not inform the public of what was to be done with the public’s money.
For example, if his bill were to become law, a City Council could discuss publicly whether or not it made sense to buy property for a certain purpose, but the dollar and cents specifics would be discussed in private.
As a former real estate agent, Hough dismisses the notion that the change he proposes would drive up the cost of property the city wants to buy.
“The reality is at the end of the day when a purchase and sale agreement is submitted, it’s between two parties,” he said. “They either will or they won't and it doesn't matter what anybody else does. The idea of extorting the city is not based on real dollars and cents.”
City officials retain the ability to determine what they are willing to pay.
“That’s the free market,” Hough said. “In the end, you have to have good business sense.”
He said he merely feels the public has a right to know what is being done with their money.
“If I sent my daughter to the store to buy something, when she comes back, I say, ‘What did you get and where’s my change?’
“I would expect no less of a commitment from the city's officials to the folks giving them the money.”
He said the fact that the City Council held nonpublic sessions on more than one land purchase added to his concern.
“Oh absolutely, when you start developing a track record. I can see a mistake, but this has become a mode of operation.”
He said he has also heard reports of public land transactions held outside the public eye in Sanbornton and Nashua.
Meanwhile, council members in some other cities, such as Concord and Franklin, routinely discuss land purchases in public sessions.
Laconia Mayor Andrew Hosmer said he and the City Council are committed to full transparency for their actions. He said he has not read Hough’s bill and would, therefore, have no comment on it.
Hosmer and City Manager Scott Myers say the city followed the letter of the law in its land purchases.
Former Laconia Mayor Ed Engler said there are times when a seller might not want it known publicly that the city was interested in buying their property, but on balance, he said he wouldn't have any problem with Hough's bill.
Councilor Bruce Cheney and former Mayor Tom Tardif said they support Hough’s efforts to give greater transparency to the land purchase process.
“It makes all the sense in the world to me,” Cheney said. “I think when we start thinking about dollar amounts, we should be guarded about that until such time as the decision is made, but the fact that we’re thinking about buying, it's not inappropriate to announce we're interested in the property.”
The next stop for Hough’s bill is the House Judiciary Committee.