LACONIA — The New Hampshire Supreme Court has warned Belknap County that its method of providing notice of public meetings leaves it open to legal challenges.
The warning came in a decision issued last week in a lawsuit filed by former Laconia Mayor Tom Tardif against the Belknap County Legislative Delegation.
Last year, Justice Amy Ignatius, sitting in Carroll County Superior Court, denied Tardif’s attempt to invalidate actions taken by the delegation at three meetings held in April of 2016 due to lack of adequate public notice.
She later denied a request from Belknap County that Tardif pay the county’s legal fees incurred in defending itself against his legal action. The county claimed the suit was frivolous.
Ignatius ruled that while Tardif may be seen as “a thorn on the side of governmental bodies,” his actions were not “frivolous or brought for the purpose of harassment.”
The Supreme Court agreed, writing in its decision that the county’s method of publishing a single electronic notice listing the dates and times during which “it may also be in attendance” together with a single notice in a newspaper differs from other notice methods the court has dealt with.
The court wrote: “The petitioner’s challenges to the adequacy of the notice were reasonable. The fact that the petitioner has filed a number of allegedly frivolous lawsuits against various municipal entities over the last twenty years does not compel a different conclusion.”
It made the decision after reading the briefs filed by both sides and concluding that oral arguments were not needed.
Last summer the Belknap County Delegation approved spending $19,000 to defend itself in the Supreme Court against Tardif’s lawsuit.
The suit brought by Tardif revolved around three 2016 meetings of the county delegation, which were posted for April 4, 6 and 8. But, when the convention convened on April 4 and 6, both meetings were recessed and continued for lack of a quorum. When the convention met on April 8, a quorum was present and action was taken on three items.
Tardif claimed that since the meetings on April 4 and 6 were not held, the convention could not have recessed them and was required to post new notices of the meetings on April 6 and 8. Since the convention failed to properly post the meeting on April 8, Tardif alleged, the actions it took were invalid. He asked the court to enjoin the convention from recessing and continuing meetings at which there is no quorum and to invalidate the actions taken at that April 8 meeting.
In rejecting Tardif's allegations, Ignatius noted that the notice of the meeting on April 4 included notice of the two subsequent meetings. Consequently, the public was informed of the date, time and venue of all three meetings. Nor, she said, did the convention act improperly in recessing the two meetings that lacked a quorum, since nothing in the law prohibits it from doing so.
The delegation authorized the transfer of $50,013 to cover the cost items of the contract with the Corrections Department union at the April 8 meeting.
Tardif has filed many legal actions against both the county and city of Laconia in recent years, including one in 2007 in which the Supreme Court struck down a secret vote taken by the county delegation to name Craig Wiggin as Belknap County Sheriff.
• In 2015 he filed a suit charging that the City Council violated the state Right-to-Know law on two occasions in October 2014, when it discussed behind closed doors the possible purchase of the Belknap Mill and the course of unrelated pending litigation was denied by Justice Charles Temple of Carroll County Superior Court.
Originally filed in Belknap County Superior Court, the case was transferred to Carroll County when Justice James D. O'Neill III recused himself.
• The Belknap County Delegation in 2013 had to hold a second vote to elect its officers for 2013-2014 after Tardif and Dave Gammon charged that the original election in December 2012, by secret paper ballot, violated the Right-to-Know law. Tardif and Gammon brought suit against the convention in Belknap County Superior Court, arguing that there is no basis in New Hampshire law for conducting any secret ballot vote during a meeting of a public board and that, in fact, RSA 91-A, specially prohibits such a practice.
• Tardif and Doug Lambert challenged the Belknap County Delegation's vote when it hired Craig Wiggin as sheriff in 2007 to replace Dan Collis. They maintained that the vote to hire him was not taken in public and they won a state Supreme Court decision which forced the county to have recorded public votes by convention members.
In a unanimous opinion written by Justice James Duggan, the Supreme Court said, “'Filling a vacancy' ... in the office of the county sheriff is not equivalent to 'hiring' a 'person as a public employee.'" Duggan explained, "The Convention is not 'hiring' the occupant for the office of the sheriff, but is instead designating an occupant for, or placing an occupant in, the vacant office in lieu of an election, and as such is essentially 'appointing' a person to the office." By forbidding secret ballots during open sessions, Duggan continued, the Legislature "clearly evinced its intent to allow the public an opportunity to know and scrutinize the actions of its governmental officials." He stressed that "such public scrutiny is of even greater import when the public body at issue consists of persons who by their very nature represent the will of the people, and, in their actions, are substituting their judgment for that of the people."
Duggan concluded that the decision to hold a secret ballot violated not only the letter "but also the fundamental purpose of the Right-to-Know law."