Convention delays final adoption of county budget after 4 Republicans join Democrats on critical vote
Published Date Written by Michael KitchLACONIA — At the close of another stormy meeting last night, the Belknap County Convention deferred a final vote on the 2013 county budget for at least another week when a motion to first hear the Belknap County Commission explain the cost items in the collective bargaining agreements negotiated with the unions representing county employees carried by the narrowest of majorities.
Earlier the convention amended its version of the budget, which Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the body, formatted on a spreadsheet that did not include the most recent amendments. Although the document was distributed to members, only a handful of copies were available for the public assembled for a hearing. After closing the public hearing, Worsman suggested the convention proceed to a vote.
Rep. Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton balked, remarking that the public had not an opportunity to review the budget. Nor, she said, had the commission been granted an opportunity to present the cost items in the union contracts for approval, despite three requests to do so. "Thank you for your input," said Worsman offering her usual response to unwelcome suggestions, particularly from the five Democrats on the convention. "It is imperative that we do the work of the convention."
Gulick proposed a motion to delay a vote on the budget until the public had time to consider it and the commission had presented the cost items. "If we proceed tonight ," she said, "we're saying that the public doesn't matter."
"Let's get the budget finished, then address the cost items," said Rep. Frank Tilton (R-Laconia), noting that the convention could deal with the cost items later by either transferring funds or making a supplemental appropriation."
Reminding his colleagues that three times Worsman refused the commissioners request to present the cost items, Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) remind his colleagues, "if we had acted when they first requested, we'd be done with it by now."
"I will go with whatever the vote is," Worsman conceded.
Gulick's motion carried by a margin of nine-to-seven. All five Democrats — Representatives Gulick, Huot, Lisa DiMartino of Gilford, Ian Raymond of Sanbornton and Beth Arsenault of Laconia — were joined in the majority by Republicans Chuck Fink of Belmont, Bob Luther of Laconia, Stephen Homes Alton and, clearly to Worsman's surprise and dismay, Bob Greemore of Meredith.
The meeting did not begin well for Worsman, who opened by welcoming everyone "to the Belknap County Republican budget committee hearing," an unfortunate slip in light of repeated charges that she and a handful of Republican members have managed the process behind a veil of secrecy.
Worsman began by addressing the decision of the commission not to permit the convention to hire legal counsel to represent the convention in litigation challenging the legitimacy of the election of its officers by secret paper ballot brought in Belknap County Superior Court by Tom Tardif and Dave Gammon.
Commissioner Ed Philpot reminded the convention that engaging legal counsel to defend the county in litigation was the responsibility of the commission. He distributed an opinion to that effect from attorney Paul Fitzgerald, who has represented the county in other matters.
Greemore offered a motion to appeal the decision of the commission to deny the convention choice of counsel. When Gulick asked to whom the convention would appeal, Rep. Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) replied "to ourselves," asserting that the convention is "the appellate body." He cited the statute bearing on the defense and indemnification of county officials sued while acting within the scope of their official duties, which provides that the county attorney or, with the consent of the commission, outside counsel shall provide their defense. The law further provides that officials denied representation by the commissioners may appeal to the convention.
"Let's not break the law again," Gulick implored to no avail and the motion to appeal was adopted, eleven to four, with only the four Democrats present — Arsenault, Gulick, Raymond and DiMartino — dissenting.
Gulick, a retired attorney, urged the convention to consider Fitzgerald's opinion, and when Worsman refused, declared "we're not following the law, not following precedent. I move that we accept your resignation!"
Worsman remarked that "we have information that cannot be discussed in public," alluding to a legal opinion she insisted was protected by attorney-client privilege. She said that she had shared it with the executive committee of the convention.
Huot, a retired judge, wondered how a legal opinion rendered on behalf of the convention could be withheld from its members.
Arsenault read a statement expressing her discomfort with the budget process pursued at Worsman's direction and offered a spirited defense of the work of the commission. She emphasized that the commissioners were elected by "the same people who elected us" and said that she was offended by the treatment of the commission at the hands of the convention. She closed to a round of loud and sustained applause.
Raymond moved to delay a vote on the budget until the convention had an opportunity to meet with department heads to determine the impact of the proposed spending cuts. "I was not elected to find the quickest way possible to make county government dysfunction through funding cuts," he said. His motion failed 10 to six, as Luther voted with the five Democrats.
Tilton proposed four amendments to the budget, foremost among them trimming the salary of the county administrator Debra Shackett by $20,000, from $106,721 to $86,721. He also reduced the legal budget from $30,000 to $10,000 and the appropriation for staff training from $7,000 to $2,000 while increasing the contingency account from $86,800 to $150,000. The changes added $18,200 to the budget.
Arsenault asked Tilton why he singled out Shackett's salary and was told that administration accounted for the most significant growth of spending.
Commissioner John Thomas, who chairs the commission, won applause by telling the convention flatly, "you do not have the authority to touch individual salaries." Worsman countered "it is not cutting salaries. It is allocating funds to line items."
Philpot asked Tilton whether, in cutting the legal budget, he inquired about pending ands threatened litigation. "We met with every department," Tilton replied. Philpot repeated his question. "I think he's answered the question," said Worsman.
"He answered nothing," Philpot shot back.
With what Gulick called "the third illegal vote we've had tonight," Tilton's amendments were adopted 10 to six, with Luther again joining the Democrats in dissent. Holmes asked to abstain, but was instructed to vote by Worsman, who said that in the House of Representatives members present were not permitted to abstain.
That prompted Philpot to ask "what rules are you operating under?" When Worsman confessed "we have not adopted rules," he said, "so they're your rules."
Many of the some 40 members of the public spoke, with those, including a number of county employees, who expressed concern at the conduct of the convention drawing repeated applause.
Ken Randall of Tilton, who chaired the convention for 10 terms, recalled "there was not the hullaballoo I've heard here tonight" and offered a vote of confidence in the county commission and county employees."
Peter Brunette, a state employee, described the proceedings as "a blatant display of partisanship," urged the convention to reject "this preposterous budget" and, reminding the the Republicans of the results of the last election, chided them for "pushing the same losing agenda on the county level."
But, Roger Gray of Sanbornton noted that the budget does not include pay cuts or lay offs and said that if the convention approved pay increases, the budget would be balanced on the back of taxpayers.
He was echoed by Barbara Howard of the Alton Budget Committee, who stressed that employees working in the private sector, whose taxes pay the wages of their counterparts in the public sector, have gone without pay raises and suffered benefit reductions. "We're all in this together," she said.
Maureen Baxley of Laconia remarked "I don't understand the difference between a private sector and a public sector taxpayer and I don't like what's going on here at all."
One speaker lamenting the "lack of civility" was troubled to find "good people behaving miserably toward each other."