Taxpayers’ Bill for Selectmen’s Folly Climbs to $20,930.87

The selectmen lost their lawsuit against Bob McWhirter and me but they’re still paying their attorney, Richard Sager for it using taxpayer money. Sager’s invoice from September includes $1,884.75 for services related to the selectmen’s lawsuit. This brings the total that the selectmen have paid to Sager for the lawsuit to $18,649.62. The selectmen also paid $2,281.25 to Patrick Harvie to give “expert testimony” at the court hearing in June.

That brings the total amount of taxpayer money that the selectmen have spent trying to make it more difficult for the public to access public documents to $20,930.87.

The selectmen have spent such a large amount of money on their failed lawsuit that even Sager seems to think it’s too much. Starting in September, Sager reduced his rate and his paralegal’s rate — for the services related to the Right to Know case only — to 60% of his regular fee, which is $175 per hour. (That is the prevailing municipal rate for attorneys in this area.) [See update below.] Sager’s regular rate for his paralegal is $100 per hour. He reduced those rates to $105 and $60.

If Sager had charged his regular fees for the work related to the lawsuit in September then his invoice for those services would have been $3,141.25 not $1,884.75.

I appreciate that Sager reduced his rates (for work related to the lawsuit) in September. However, the bulk of the work his office performed in that month was redacting of emails. Even at his reduced rates, that’s an incredible waste of taxpayer money considering the selectmen could have had the town office staff, who we already pay, do that work at no extra cost. Instead they chose to have Sager do the redaction work.

If the selectmen are going to continue to waste taxpayer money, I suggest Sager revert to his normal rates. Why should he take less than his normal fee? I don’t blame him for charging for his services.

Update: The post originally states “That is the prevailing rate for attorneys in this area.” But I updated it to include be the municipal rate after Sager had this to say on Facebook in response to this post:

Oh, Max. More complaining. Much Ledoux about nothing. And not accurate once again. So here goes. (1) I reduced my rate by 40% for the purpose of redacting emails because the Town didn’t have the resources available to do it. My rate for municipalities is $175/hour. (2) You are incorrect (again) when you say $175/hour “is the prevailing rate for attorneys in this area.” Wrong. That’s a prevailing rate (or even a little low) for attorneys doing municipal work. Call around and you will see the prevailing hourly rate in this area for non-municipal work ranges around $275-$300/hour. Head south and it’s in the $350-450 range. (3) I didn’t just decide to charge a lower rate for email redaction in September 2017. I offered that to the selectmen in 2016 when you made your request for 13,000 emails. So, when are you going to inform me and the folks on this Forum about your decision whether you agree to sit down and meet? Just don’t ignore the invitation, man up! If you don’t want to participate, say so (and why would be interesting). If your answer is yes, let’s set it up.

Sager has never substantiated the “13,000” emails claim, although he throws it at me often as if it’s a lot of emails (it’s not). In court documents, the selectmen’s administrative secretary, Karen Koch, stated there were between 740 and 760 emails responsive to Bob McWhirter’s Right to Know request. My Right to Know request has so far produced a few hundred emails, at most. (However, the selectmen are refusing to provide me all of the emails that were the subject of the lawsuit.) Further, Karen stated in the documents that were filed with the court that the selectmen’s counsel (Sager) had informed her that the number of emails was not relevant.

Karen Koch Suggestions Were “Potentially Violative of 91-A”

In an interesting line item on his September invoice, the selectmen’s attorney Richard Sager billed Tuftonboro taxpayers $73.50 for “Email from/to Karen with details on the redaction process (and why her suggestions are more time consuming or potentially violative of 91-A).

It would be interesting to find out what Karen, the selectmen’s administrative secretary, suggested that Sager thought was “potentially violative of 91-A.” RSA 91-A is the Right to Know law, and the selectmen have spent much of the past year, as well as more than $20,000, attempting to make it harder for the public to gain access to public documents.

This is not the first “suggestion” Karen has made that can be considered “potentially violative of 91-A.”

In June of 2016, Karen Koch suggested in an email to Bob McWhirter, that she would not comply with the Right to Know law if she didn’t like the way requests were made. Karen wrote:

I will be glad to respond to legitimate Right to Know requests that are requested in a respectful manner. If requests are neither legitimate Right to Know requests or asked in an aggressive manner, I will refrain from responding. [Emphasis added.]

There is no “ask politely” requirement in RSA 91-A. If Karen ever did refuse to respond to a Right to Know request because, in her subjective opinion, it was “asked in an aggressive manner,” then that would be concerning — and “potentially violative of 91-A.”

Selectmen Set Property Tax Rate for 2018


The selectmen (Lloyd Wood, Bill Marcussen, and Chip Albee) lowered the local tax rate from $2.91 to $2.73 on Monday. However, Tuftonboro taxpayers’ total tax burden will rise 3.3% to $10.77 from last year’s rate of $10.43.

The tax rate is applied per $1,000 in assessed property value, so if your property is valued at $100,000, you will owe $1,077 for tax year 2018.

The rise in the overall rate is due entirely to a 20.5% increase in the tax rate for the Governor Wentworth Regional School District.

The selectmen were able to lower the local rate by taking $350,000 from the undesignated fund (money that was already raised through taxes in prior years but not spent). They are not lowering the tax rate in connection to a corresponding reduction to the town’s budget.

In addition to the local tax, the $10.77 total 2018 tax rate includes:

  • $4.23 for local education (Governor Wentworth Regional School District)
  • $2.43 for state education (UNH system, etc.)
  • $1.38 for Carroll County

The tax rate for local education is increasing 20.5% from $3.51 in 2017, while state education is decreasing 4.3% from $2.54 and Carroll County is also decreasing 6.1% from $1.47.

Selectmen Continue to Impede Right to Know

At their October 16, 2017, meeting the board of selectmen (Lloyd Wood, Bill Marcussen, and Chip Albee) discussed adding an extra layer of bureaucracy to Right to Know requests. The Granite State News reported:

[Selectman Chip Albee] suggested that members of the public seeking information that is not readily available fill out a form stating their specific request, which will then be considered by the board.

According to the draft minutes of the meeting:

The Selectmen discussed handling of Right to Know requests. If information or a document is not readily available, a proper Right to Know request is to be submitted to the Selectmen for their review before information is provided.

I sent the minutes to David Saad, the president of Right to Know NH* and a member of the recently convened Legislative Commission to Study Processes to Resolve Right-to-Know Complaints, to get his perspective. David wrote back, saying: “Nothing in the Right to Know law requires that you fill out a form, nor does it require the requesting parties to identify themselves. The selectmen should not take any action that would defeat or delay disclosure required by the Right to Know Law.”

According to RSA 91-A:4 IV, a “proper Right to Know request” is merely a “reasonably described” request:

Each public body or agency shall, upon request for any governmental record reasonably described, make available for inspection and copying any such governmental record within its files when such records are immediately available for such release. If a public body or agency is unable to make a governmental record available for immediate inspection and copying, it shall, within 5 business days of request, make such record available, deny the request in writing with reasons, or furnish written acknowledgment of the receipt of the request and a statement of the time reasonably necessary to determine whether the request shall be granted or denied. [Emphasis added.]

The selectmen have no statutory authority to determine what a “proper” Right to Know request is or is not.

Unfortunately, the Tuftonboro selectmen’s secretary, Karen Koch, has also taken it upon herself to improperly interpret the law.

In June of 2016, Karen Koch wrote an email to Bob McWhirter, responding to a question he’d asked. Karen wrote:

I will be glad to respond to legitimate Right to Know requests that are requested in a respectful manner. If requests are neither legitimate Right to Know requests or asked in an aggressive manner, I will refrain from responding. [Emphasis added.]

There is no “ask politely” requirement in RSA 91-A. In an ideal world, we would all be polite. However, if Karen ever did refuse to respond to a Right to Know request because, in her subjective opinion, it was “asked in an aggressive manner,” then that would be concerning — and clearly illegal.

In fact, Karen did “refrain from responding” to a Right to Know request I made on December 12, 2016, and it’s not clear why. My request was for emails concerning the cancelled auction of town-owned properties that was to have been conducted on October 15, 2016, by the selectmen’s attorney, Richard Sager. Although RSA 91-A:4-IV, as quoted above, requires a response within five business days, I never received any acknowledgement whatsoever from the selectmen or from Karen. On October 4, 2017, I renewed my request. The selectmen have not yet provided me with the emails.

*I am a member of RTKNH. I joined after the selectmen sued me last year when I made a Right to Know request.

Update: I updated the first paragraph of this post because the selectmen have not yet made any decision about requiring the use of a form for Right to Know requests, but instead discussed it.

Selectmen to Set Tax Rate for 2018 Update: CANCELLED

Update: The meeting has been cancelled. No indication yet when the tax rate will be set. Original post below:

The board of selectmen (Lloyd Wood, Bill Marcussen, and Chip Albee) are meeting tomorrow at 8:30AM, Thursday, October 26, at the town offices. Their regular meetings are Mondays. Tomorrow’s meeting is classified as a work session, which means they will not allow public comment.

How the Selectmen Waste Your Money

The selectmen are redacting public information from government records that they have provided to me as the result of a Right to Know request I made for emails between town employees and the town’s IT vendor, Tom Albert of Computer Port, Inc, in North Conway.

In the attached email, the selectmen have redacted the name server for tuftonboro.org.

If you don’t know what a name server is, don’t worry about it. The short version is that when you type “tuftonboro.org” into the address bar of your browser and hit enter, the browser uses the name server to determine the IP address of the web site. If you don’t know what an IP address is, you can think of it as the website’s phone number. In this analogy, “tuftonboro.org” is your friend’s name, the name server is the phone book, and the IP address is the phone number.

The point is, the name server is public — it’s not confidential. There are many tools for looking up a website’s name servers, but to provide just one example you can look up the name servers for Tuftonboro.org right here. (Having two name servers is normal.) The name servers for tuftonboro.org are:

NS1.OXFORDNETWORKS.NET
NS2.OXFORDNETWORKS.NET

Again, this is not secret information. The name servers for this site, tuftonboro.net, are:
ROB.NS.CLOUDFLARE.COM
ROSA.NS.CLOUDFLARE.COM

So why are the selectmen wasting your tax money redacting publicly available information?

The selectmen have spent about $20,000 over the past year attempting to make it harder for the public to know what they’re doing. They filed a lawsuit against Bob McWhirter and me, which they lost, because they wanted to charge us 25 cents per page to inspect government records, even though the law states clearly that “no fee shall be charged for the inspection or delivery, without copying, of governmental records, whether in paper, electronic, or other form.”

Having spent so much of your tax money on their lawsuit, they don’t want to admit that they were wrong, I believe. Thus, they do absurd things like redact Bob McWhirter’s telephone number and mailing address from emails that they provided to Bob McWhirter himself.

The selectmen paid their attorney, Richard Sager, $175 an hour to keep Bob’s email address, telephone number, and mailing address from Bob. One wonders, what they thought would be the consequences of informing Bob what his own phone number is. Perhaps they thought he would do something foolish, like give it out. They surely didn’t want to be responsible for that. People he had given his number to as a result of the town’s actions might then call him!