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.”

What Carolyn Sundquist Knew

Click image to view email in PDF

Carolyn Sundquist knew that Tuftonboro selectmen could not legally charge an hourly fee for responding to Right to Know requests and that the town could charge only for “copy/paper fees.” She knew this long before she, as chair of the selectmen’s board, initiated a lawsuit against Bob McWhirter and me in an attempt to charge us for inspecting government records. The lawsuit would eventually cost the taxpayers about $20,000 (and counting — I’ll update you next week).

In a February 2016 email the selectmen’s administrative secretary, Karen Koch, wrote to Carolyn: “In terms of town’s [sic] charging an hourly rate for any research to be done, it is illegal to do so.” Karen wrote that this was based on a conversation she had had with Margaret Burns of the New Hampshire Municipal Association, and that “the only things that towns can legally charge for are copy/paper fees.”

Indicating that she had read Karen’s email and understood its content, Carolyn replied on February 27, 2016: “Thanks for checking with NHMA regarding minutes and charging for research. Would you please redo the sheet that list [sic] the charges for copies in a compatible format for inclusion in the copy policy we just approved. Note the changes regarding emailed copies and whatever else would need explanation.”

Carolyn’s own words show that she clearly understood no fees could be charged for “emailed copies,” but she (along with the other two selectmen, Lloyd Wood and Bill Marcussen) attempted to charge Bob McWhirter and me 25 cents per page to inspect emails. When we refused to pay that illegal fee (given the number of emails, it would’ve amounted to thousands of dollars), the selectmen sent sheriff’s deputies to our houses on a Sunday morning to serve us with a lawsuit.

As a result, we were forced to hire an attorney, a great expense, and to defend ourselves not only in Carroll County Superior Court but also in the court of public opinion. Just last week, the selectmen’s attorney, Richard Sager, publicly slandered Bob McWhirter in a Facebook post on the Tuftonboro Free Speech Forum Facebook group, which any resident of Tuftonboro can join: “Bob tags along behind Max like a little puppy dog, impugning my character by suggesting I would ever consider hiding ‘SECRET’ information. Get a life.” Sager then blamed Bob and me for the $20,000 that the selectmen paid Sager for the lawsuit and asserted that producing the emails was a “considerable expense to the town.” This is false, and Sager knows it’s false. Judge Amy Ignatius ruled on August 8 that there was no cost to the town for producing the emails.

 

The above-mentioned email, which the selectmen finally turned over to me last week, strongly suggests that Carolyn (and maybe Lloyd and Bill as well) acted in bad faith when suing us: They were attempting to collect a fee that Carolyn knew to be illegal.

Carolyn, Bill, and Lloyd are responsible for wasting around $20,000 in taxpayer money. Bob and I exercised our constitutional and statutory Right to Know, and we defended ourselves when the selectmen launched an abusive lawsuit against us.

Richard Sager Calls Bob McWhirter a “Puppy Dog,” Tells Him “Get a Life”

Richard Sager, of Sager & Smith in Ossipee, represented the Tuftonboro board of selectmen in their failed lawsuit against Bob McWhirter and me. The selectmen sued us after we made Right to Know requests, because they thought that they should be able to charge us a fee even though the law states clearly that they cannot. Carroll County Superior Court Judge Amy Ignatius ruled on August 8 that the law, which states that “no fee shall be charged,” in fact means that “no fee shall be charged.” Despite this, as of today, the selectmen still have not provided us with any of the emails we requested. Bob made his Right to Know request almost a year ago, on October 17, 2016.

The selectmen have chosen to pay Sager $175 an hour to process the Right to Know requests, even though the town office staff could do it and we already pay their salaries.

Today, instead of providing us with the emails we have a constitutional right to see, Sager instead resorted to calling Bob names, and he also misrepresented the facts about the case. It’s not clear whether he will bill the town $175 an hour for his time composing this Facebook post:

The selectmen’s administrative secretary, Karen Koch, submitted written testimony to the court prior to the hearing that the number of emails responsive to Bob’s Right to Know request was between 740 and 760, not 13,000. My request for emails between Tuftonboro.org email addresses and the Granite State News covered 25 emails, not 13,000. I don’t know how many emails were responsive to my other request for Carolyn Sundquist’s emails between January 1, 2016, and February 29, 2016, because the selectmen never told me.

We did postpone the original hearing. The selectmen tried to push us into court right before Christmas. We had to hire an attorney and prepare a defense. We also both had plans for Christmas with family. Once we hired an attorney, the selectmen suddenly lost their zeal to see us in court. It was the selectmen who repeatedly postponed the hearing from January to June.

Richard Sager should apologize to Bob, and the selectmen should re-evaluate their relationship with him. Not only does he frequently act unprofessionally, but he has now lost several cases for the town in Superior Court.

Richard Sager’s Haul from Suing Residents for Exercising Rights: $16,336.12

The selectmen have paid Richard Sager, of Sager & Smith in Ossipee, NH, $16,336.12 in taxpayer money from the residents of Tuftonboro to sue Bob McWhirter and me for the supposed crime of exercising our right to know under RSA 91-A and the New Hampshire Constitution, a review of Sager’s invoices reveals. The $16,336.12 that the selectmen handed over to Sager does not include charges for an “expert” witness, Patrick Harvie, whom Sager brought in at $125 an hour to explain to the court that emails have metadata, a fact we never contested and that was irrelevant to the case.

In November, 2016, I made a Right to Know request to inspect some emails. The selectmen attempted to charge me $6.50 to inspect the emails, even though the law unequivocally states, “No fee shall be charged for the inspection or delivery, without copying, of governmental records, whether in paper, electronic, or other form.” When I refused to pay the $6.50, the only amount they ever tried to charge either Bob or me, the selectmen (at that time Carolyn Sundquist, Bill Marcussen, and Lloyd Wood) sent a sheriff’s deputy to our doors on a Sunday morning to serve us each with a lawsuit: Town of Tuftonboro vs Bob WcWhirter & Maxim A.A.L Blowen-Ledoux. (I have a weird name, so sue me. Wait, no; don’t. That’s just an expression!)

$16,336.12 for $6.50.

Think that one through the next time Selectman Bill Marcussen says he has a fiduciary responsibility to the town.

Sources:
Sager invoices November 2016 to May 2017
Sager invoices June 2017
Sager RTK fees

Richard Sager Charges $20 for Paralegal to Watch YouTube Video

Richard Sager, attorney
Richard Sager
Photo credit: sagerhaskell.com

Richard Sager of Sager & Smith, PLLC (previously of Sager & Haskell, PLLC), in Ossipee, NH, charged the taxpayers of Tuftonboro $20 for his paralegal, Heather Wrigley, to watch a 12 minute YouTube video posted by yours truly.

The $20 YouTube-watching charge appears on Sager & Smith’s April, 2017, invoice to the town for charges related to the Tuftonboro vs. McWhirter & Ledoux case.

The selectmen sued Bob McWhirter and me in an attempt to avoid their duty under the law to make governmental records available for inspection at no charge. As Sager admitted in court earlier this month, RSA 91-A states that “no fee shall be charged for the inspection” of governmental records.

Taxpayers have spent $12,405.59 on Sager’s legal services, specifically related to this case, from November 2016, to May 15, 2017, according to a review of Sager’s invoices, which are public documents (i.e., governmental records) and were provided to Betsy Frago and me by the selectmen after we made Right to Know requests to inspect them. Contradictorily, the town did not attempt to charge us to inspect the invoices, even though the selectmen are suing Bob and me in order to try to get the Court to rewrite the law in order to allow them to charge us a fee to inspect governmental records.

The invoice notes a $20 charge for “.20” hours (12 minutes) billed at Wrigley’s $60 per hour paralegal fee for “Save defendant’s latest video to our file” on April 24, 2017.

The “latest video” at that time was this 12-minute, 28-second video that I posted on April 3:

I suppose we should be grateful that Sager did not round up the fee from 2/10 to 3/10 of an hour and bill us an additional $10 for that 28 seconds!

The hearing in this case was on June 12, 2017, in Carroll County Superior Court with Judge Ignatius presiding and can be viewed in its entirety here:

We have not yet received a decision from the court.

Selectmen’s Meeting for May 1, 2017

0:00 CALL TO ORDER / PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE
0:30 PUBLIC COMMENT
6:10 APPOINTMENT: Richard Sager
35:40 REVIEW and approval of minutes
41:25 SIGNATURE FILES
51:40 CONTINUED BUSINESS
59:00 SELECTMEN’S UPDATE
1:06:30 Highway Department several lines items over budget
1:08:20 Calendar announcements
1:09:40 Correspondence
1:16:00 RTK from Don McWhirter
1:24:00 OTHER BUSINESS
1:26:00 PUBLIC COMMENT
1:26:10 Chris Sawyer — Fire truck
1:27:15 Guy Pike — Stonewalls in town rights of way
1:27:40 Max Ledoux
1:29:00 RETURN TO BUSINESS: redo motions from last Friday’s meeting because wrong dates were used by accident

Richard Sager Appointment with Selectmen on Auction of Tax-Deeded Properties

Richard Sager met with the selectmen on Monday, May 1, to tell them that they can still conduct an auction of tax-deeded properties even though Town Meeting voted to restrict the selectmen to selling the properties by sealed bids only. He then went own to promote his own services as auctioneer.

You may want to review the video from Town Meeting of Article 9 being amended:

(If you want, you can skip to the 15:12 mark to see Steven Snow amend the article specifically to restrict the selectmen’s authority to selling properties by sealed bid.)

The language of the amended article as passed by a show of hands (i.e. with a clear majority) was:

To see if the Town will vote pursuant to RSA 80:80 to authorize the Selectmen to convey real property acquired by the Town by Tax Collector’s Deed by advertised sealed bid.

Sager incorrectly thought the language was:

To see if the Town will vote pursuant to RSA 80:80 to authorize the Selectmen to convey real property acquired by the Town by Tax Collector’s Deed by advertised sealed bid or in such manner as determined by the Selectmen as justice may require.

This is because the first draft of the minutes was incorrect. However, Heather Cubeddu, Town Clerk, has corrected the minutes on the town website. Sager likely printed out the draft minutes back in March and then didn’t check to see if they had been updated before his meeting with the selectmen.

He told the selectmen that, according to a conversation he had with someone at the New Hampshire Municipal Association, the words “as justice may require” mean that the selectmen could still do an auction even though “public auction” was specifically removed from the article by the voters. However, as demonstrated, Town Meeting removed the the “as justice may require” language completely, rendering Sager’s argument moot.

The relevant statute, as reference in the warrant article, is 80:80-II, and reads:

If the selectmen or mayor are so authorized to convey such property by deed, either a public auction shall be held, or the property may be sold by advertised sealed bids. The selectmen or mayor shall have the power to establish a minimum amount for which the property is to be sold and the terms and conditions of the sale.

Clearly, the selectmen are “so authorized” to sell tax-deeded properties by “advertised sealed bid” only. The selectmen are not “so authorized” to conduct a “public auction.”

The selectmen had simply forgotten that the article had been amended. But I have sent them the above video from Town Meeting, and I am sure that after they review it they will follow the will of the voters and not conduct an auction.