The Belknap County Legislative Delegation is poised to remove commissioners in charge of Gunstock Mountain Resort following a successful ski season and just days before a new season is to begin.
And some members of the delegation feel the decision has already been made even though it won’t be voted on until a Tuesday public meeting, at which no public testimony is to be allowed.
Those who wish to make comments may do so by emailing or calling delegates. Email addresses and phone numbers are at belknapcounty.org/county-delegation.
At stake is the future direction of the county-owned ski area in Gilford. The majority of the Gunstock Area Commission would like to direct major growth in the resort, including a doubling of skiable terrain, a road to the summit and a hotel.
Commissioners voted earlier this week to petition the court to halt the delegation's meeting next week. As of Wednesday afternoon, no such petition had reached the court, though they would still have time to file one Friday.
Some members of the all-Republican delegation would like to see Gunstock leased out to a private party.
Rep. Mike Bordes said Thursday he hasn’t seen any evidence showing a just cause for removing commissioners, but feels a majority of others on the 18-member delegation will vote to support an effort by Rep. Mike Sylvia to shake up the composition of the commission.
State law allows the delegation to appoint commissioners and remove them for cause, but the definition of cause is open to interpretation.
Bordes said public testimony should be allowed on Tuesday.
“I really feel the accused and the accuser should have a right to speak,” he said. “How do you form an opinion off a piece of paper? You can’t. There’s a right way to do things and a wrong way, and they need to take public testimony.”
Rep. Travis O’Hara sees the possible removal of commissioners as a political attack and an improper way to solve policy differences.
Sylvia, chairman of the delegation, sent a letter to delegation members on Saturday questioning whether the Gunstock Area Commission has been abiding by open meeting laws. In the same letter, he said there would be no public testimony at the Tuesday delegation meeting.
Last month, four commissioners requested that the delegation dismiss Commissioner Peter Ness over allegations that he had a conflict of interest in trying to sell the resort a software program and that he was insulting toward resort employees.
Sylvia has said this removal attempt, which was voted down by the delegation, 11-5, was an effort to intimidate the delegation and may have been illegal. No public testimony was taken then, either.
Rep. Norm Silber said the delegation has a right to remove commissioners if they see fit. He has also said the public would be better served if the ski area were leased to a private party.
He has introduced legislation that would wrest budgetary control over the resort from the commission and put it in the hands of the delegation.
If it were leased out, the county would benefit from payments a private operator would make in lieu of property taxes and local taxpayers would face none of the liability of running a ski area, Silber said. He also objects to business decisions approved by the commission, including bonuses paid after last year’s successful season.
Bordes said the controversy has generated an outcry from constituents.
“I’ve already received 30 or 40 emails pertaining to this matter,” he said. “And 99 percent are, ‘Please keep the commissioners. We love Gunstock.’
“There are a lot of profanities and harsh words for Sylvia and Silber. I think people are passionate about Gunstock. They like the way they see it is going to improve and they don’t want to see it being forced to go private.”
Greg Goddard, the former longtime Gunstock general manager, said the delegation’s approach toward the resort’s governing commission is unprecedented.
“As far as what this delegation is doing, I’ve never seen an abuse of power by that body that was ever close to what is going on now,” he said. “I worked with over 80 different representatives in the county delegation and any disagreements never rose to the point where they are unilaterally trying to take over the resort and remove sitting commissioners.
“My personal opinion is that Gunstock runs fine the way it is and should be left alone and the commissioners should be left to do their work.”
If the ski area were leased to a private group, local control would be lost.
“It would mean people who live and work and have a vested interest wouldn't control its destiny,” Goddard said. Instead, it would be controlled by a private entity “just out to make a buck and the most profit they can.”
Some representatives say they are looking for more information, including concrete examples of wrongdoing, before they vote to remove commissioners.
Rep. Thomas Ploszaj said he feels decision-making would be improved if both the Gunstock Area Commission and the Belknap County Legislative Delegation did a better job of allowing public comment.
Rep. Douglas Trottier said he finds it disheartening that the delegation will probably accede to requests to remove commissioners in what is essentially a political dispute.
“It’s very discouraging for the group that wants to do what’s right, but we want evidence and testimony,” he said.
Rep. Richard Littlefield is looking for greater clarity on what the commission did wrong.
“If there is any provable wrongdoing or any reason for one or two or more of them to be removed, I absolutely wouldn't see a problem removing them for a just cause,” he said.
Rep. Harry Bean said he didn’t want to share his thoughts on the upcoming meeting.
Sylvia has not responded to several calls for comment and declined to talk to a reporter who tried to question him in person.
Silber declined to say whether any concrete examples of allegations of improper commission actions would be shared publicly before the delegation meeting.
He did share a letter to the editor titled “truth and lies” in which he says there are no plans to shut down the ski area and it can’t be sold.
He said Gunstock as a county-owned property pays $6,587 in real estate tax to the town of Gilford, while its assessed valuation is about $15 million. If it were not exempt from taxes, its tax bill would be $245,400, he said.
Rep. Gregg Hough acknowledged that emotions have been running high around the issue of removing commissioners.
It all boils down to whether the commission has been operating within the law, he said.
He questioned some of the commissioners’ actions, including asking the delegation to remove Ness, and money spent on legal representation during that process.
Hough also criticized the way the commission runs its own meetings. He was one of the delegation members who attended a commission meeting this week.
“They were all giving us the stink eye,” Hough said.
One of the commissioners looked at delegation members and smirked, Hough said.
“These people are very angry and I don’t know why,” he said.