Comma Controversy Continued

While mulling the perennial comma controversy, I came across a curious and relevant bit of data that I had overlooked.

Here is the current language of the actual New Hampshire State law, as written:

TITLE III
TOWNS, CITIES, VILLAGE DISTRICTS, AND UNINCORPORATED PLACES
CHAPTER 31


 POWERS AND DUTIES OF TOWNS
Trust Funds
Section 31:19-a

IV. The local legislative body may authorize the acceptance of privately donated gifts, legacies, and devises to be utilized for the same purposes as a trust fund created under this section; provided, however, that such gifts, legacies, or devises shall be invested and accounted for separately from, and not commingled with, amounts appropriated under paragraph I, and shall be subject to the custody and investment provisions applicable to trust funds accepted under RSA 31:19.

New Hampshire lawmakers, like Max, favor the serial comma and also correctly set off clauses with a comma on either side.

Here is the warrant article that Tuftonboro Town Meeting passed last week, which includes the four commas added by Max (one of which was a serial comma) and approved by a narrow majority of the voters:

Shall the Town vote to authorize until rescinded the acceptance of privately donated gifts, legacies, and devises, which shall be invested and accounted for separately from, and not commingled with, amounts appropriated for expendable trust funds created under RSA 31:19-a, paragraph 1, and shall be subject to the custody and investment provisions applicable to trust funds accepted under RSA 31:19.

The article as originally written on the town warrant did not match the  state law on which it is based.

One thing on which we may agree: Legal language is not lovely, with or without commas. If you have read this far, perhaps you deserve some reward and also my thanks. So here is a snow-themed poem, from New England’s most famous poet, for those of us who love New England winters:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Contentious Commas, at Length

Of all the heated topics that arose at this year’s Town Meeting, the one that entertained me most was the question of commas — a perennial subject of discussion among editors, grammarians, and language enthusiasts through the ages. Max amended one article so that it added four commas. In legal matters, commas can be crucial; court cases have turned on the presence or absence of a comma. Scholars of the American Constitution have written tomes over the placement of commas in constitutional articles and amendments.

Here in Tuftonboro, we are not writing the founding document of a new nation (or are we?), but we still take our punctuation seriously. Commas usage over time has greatly changed, which adds to the fun and mayhem.

Max’s amendment passed, narrowly. Many of the “library crowd” boisterously voted “No!” on the four added commas.

The amended article now reads, in part:

“ . . . gifts, legacies, and devises” rather than “gifts, legacies and devises.”

This is the first comma Max added (after “legacies”). It’s the “Oxford comma,” also known as the serial comma. As the name suggests, it’s the comma in a series. Is it “red, white and blue” or “red, white, and blue”? We’re Americans, though some grumpy people now refer to us as Murican, to make a political point about how awful we are. I don’t think we’re so bad, and, in any case, we’re not Britons, so I prefer the term “serial comma.”

In Maine, a missing comma in state law recently cost Oakhurst Dairy $5 million. In 2014, drivers for the company sued, alleging they were owed overtime pay. The Portland Press Herald reported last month:

A Maine federal court initially ruled that the drivers weren’t entitled to overtime under a state law that says overtime is not required for employees engaged in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” a handful of products, including perishable products such as milk, cheese and other dairy goods.

The drivers appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, where a three-judge panel unanimously overturned the lower court’s ruling in a 29-page decision written by Judge David Barron that explored the use of the Oxford, or serial, comma:

The lower court judge had ruled that the law exempted the drivers from overtime because they were involved in the shipment and distribution of the products. But Barron said the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution of” meant both phrases referred back to “packing for”—as in “packing for shipment or packing for distribution.” Because the drivers deliver the products but don’t pack them, they weren’t covered by the Maine exemption to overtime pay.

Grammarians have long debated, sometimes with great passion, whether to use the serial comma, and people who learned punctuation years ago probably were taught to avoid using it, except on rare occasions for clarity. Some publications, such as the New York Times, still hew to this style. When I worked for the New York Times, I did not use the serial comma.

Most of the publications and book publishers for whom I’ve worked—running the gamut from Time to National Review to Parents to The Week to Commentary to the now-defunct (and probably for good reason) Vibe—now do use the serial comma. Book publishers today generally use it. Chicago Manual of Style is the basic style bible for most book publishers, and here is what its 17th edition, published in 2017, says about the serial comma:

When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities . . . since it prevents ambiguity. If the last element consists of a pair joined by and, the pair should still be preceded by a serial comma and the first and (as in the last two examples below).

  • She posted pictures of her parents, the president, and the vice president.
  • Before heading out the door, he took note of the typical outlines of sweet gum, ginkgo, and elm leaves.
  • I want no ifs, ands, or buts.
  • Paul put the kettle on, Don fetched the teapot, and I made tea.
  • Their wartime rations included cabbage, turnips, and bread and butter.
  • Ahmed was configuring updates, Jean was installing new hardware, and Alan was running errands and furnishing food.

By the way, the Fowler referred to above, Henry Watson Fowler, is an early-20th-century Oxford scholar who wrote the classic style guide A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926. It’s been updated many times and is still a standard reference guide in publishing houses. Before he wrote this guide, he and his brother wrote The King’s English, in 1906. Probably the kind of Americans who relish the term “Muricans” would condemn this latter guide as the work of imperialists.

Back to Max! He added a second and third comma to set off a “which” clause:

“ . . . gifts, legacies, and devises, which shall be invested and accounted for separately from, . . .”

Clauses that begin with “which” should generally be set off by a comma on either side; these clauses give supplemental info. Clauses that begin with “that” generally should not be set off by commas. See the entry for the word “that” in Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th Edition for a clear, elegant discussion of the distinction between “that” and “which” clauses. The great writer David Foster Wallace — author of Infinite Jest, “Consider the Lobster,” and many sparkling essays, including “Tense Present,” a superb essay on our current language-usage wars — considered Bryan Garner a genius when it comes to language usage. I tend to agree.

An interesting side note (or another one): Wallace introduced Bryan Garner to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. They bonded over their shared preference for the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, and their friendship nearly ended over a disagreement about the use of contractions. Wallace—whose sentences minutely map the meanderings of inner mental landscapes, including side routes, associations, and reversals—liked contractions. He found them lifelike. Scalia, who wrote Supreme Court opinions meant to stand the test of time, thought them beneath the dignity of the Court.

Back to Max! Here is the fourth comma Max added, to set off the appositive phrase “paragraph 1”:

“RSA 31:19-a, paragraph 1, and . . . ”

As originally written, this clause had the first comma but was missing the second.

Of the four commas added by the vote at Town Meeting, the three to properly set off parenthetical clauses were grammatically necessary. The serial comma was optional, but, following Chicago, I’d recommend it.

Serial commas get people very agitated; one petite older lady, whom I’ve never met, chewed me out and instructed me that they are simply wrong and that my grammar was subpar. “You’re wrong! You’re wrong!” she proclaimed, shaking her head in disgust and scowling furiously at me as she harrumphed away. I understand her fervor.

What are people arguing about when they argue about punctuation? That’s a topic for another day.

Town Meeting came to a raucous close, and a good time was had by (almost) all.

Library Statistics Don’t Show Need for Library Addition

I believe every community needs a library. Tuftonboro has a good library, but it could be better. I don’t think it is keeping up as well as it could with what is happening in the world.

Peak book circulation at the library occurred in 2009, at 23,981, while book circulation for 2017 was at 18,880; DVD and CD circulation peaked at 18,929 in 2011 and was down to 11,403 in 2017.

Meanwhile, in spite of the declines, the total number of items in the library collection has gone up from 29,258 in 2009 to 32,661 in 2017. In the same time frame, database/Internet “circulation” went from 602 to 7,101, and that is reflected in the circulation statistics. If you set aside the Internet usage, the current circulation is down by more than 10,000 items since 2009. That is a huge difference! (These statistics are not my creation, they were compiled by the library.)

The last time we discussed building a new library, at Town Meeting in 2015, the library staff expressed concern that there was no space for a break-room for staff so they could have private time away from the public. A month or two later, it was reported that they did create space for a break area by reducing the collection by about 700 items. However, by the end of the year the collection had increased by almost 600 items. Why are we accumulating more books when book circulation is declining?

Where is the future need for these items going to come from? There is a regional and even statewide decline in young people. The school-district population has steadily declined for about 10 years. In 2005, there were 2,889 students in the district; in 2017, it was 2,326. In 2005, there were 16 tuitioned students attending our schools, and in 2017, we had 142. Tuftonboro School has gone from 191 students in 2005 to 117 in 2017—another huge difference.

Meeting-room usage at the library has been increasing. Statistics show that average attendance for meetings and programs has ranged from a low of 10 in 2016 to a high of nearly 17 in 2014; in 2017, an average of 12 people attended. The present meeting room seats 45 people with room for a couple of tables to be set up. (The room also has full rows of books covering 2 walls plus some rolling racks of books plus extra chairs.) I have heard that the Polar Express, which is held in December, has high attendance and more seating is needed. Do we really need to build a function room to seat 85 people for one or two or even three events? The Polar Express could be held at the school gymnasium or the school cafeteria or at one of at least five other available places in town (Melvin Church, Willing Workers Hall, Tuftonboro Corner Church, Town House, Todaro Center).

Technology is the future. I don’t know how anyone can fail to see that. For Internet usage, do we need more space, let alone double the present square footage? The library needs to reduce its collection and increase its technology offerings including training and service. That will attract young families to the library. Building a huge, costly addition is not the answer.

What Does “Overspending” Mean?

At Monday’s board of selectmen’s meeting, Gordon Hunt, a member of the budget committee, and the selectmen called into question something that Chris Sawyer wrote in the Granite State News.

Chris, who is running for budget committee, stated in response to a candidate questionnaire from the paper:

This past year the selectmen took $350,000 out of the undesignated fund balance to offset overspending.

Gordon, quoting from the minutes for the selectmen’s November 6, 2017, meeting, said, “the selectmen took $350,000 from the unexpended fund balance to reduce taxes for the upcoming year.“¹

He then quoted Chris’s candidate profile from the paper and asked, “Do I interpret that as being a mistake on the part of someone?”²

Selectman Chip Albee concurred, saying it was a “mistake on whoever-said-that’s part.” Bill Marcussen chimed in, “yup.”

But why would the tax rate need to be reduced in the upcoming year?

Because spending is up. Every year the operating budget increases, in recent years by 5-10%. This year the proposed budget is increasing spending by 4%, although the amount to be raised by taxes is increasing by almost 12%.

Gordon and Bill stated in yesterday’s meeting that by law the selectmen cannot spend more than the total budget amount, therefore they cannot “overspend.” This is a word game. Chris did not write that the selectmen had overspent the budget. She stated they used the $350,000 (raised from taxes in previous years) “to offset overspending.”

Many people in town believe that we spend too much money, that we overspend. Many others in town disagree and would like to spend even more.

This is a difference of opinion. 

We have an election next week on Tuesday, March 13.

If you would like independent thinkers who won’t automatically vote for every spending increase proposed by the selectmen, then please vote for Chris and Barry Ennis.


1. The terms “unexpended,” “unassigned,” and “undesignated” are all used interchangeably to describe funds that are left over in town’s bank account. The fund balance accumulates when money that is appropriated for a given year is not expended. For instance, if a department has a budget of $100,000 for the year but spends $95,000. In that case, $5,000 is left over in the fund balance.

2. In keeping with an obsession with secrecy that pervades in town, Gordon did not use Chris’s name even though her statement was published publicly in the paper and can be read by anyone.

Facts About the Library

This is a letter that Skip Hurt wrote a few weeks ago and I reference it yesterday in my post, Of Books and Libraries.

I want to post some facts regarding the Tuftonboro Library. I believe that a clearly documented history can help resolve issues.

  1. Back in 2005 the town was presented with a proposal to build an 8,100 square-foot addition to the library at a total completed cost of $1.25 million. The library had $50,000 of their own money, so this proposal would have required a bond of $1.2 million, had it been brought to a vote. Instead, a capital reserve fund was approved for $100,000 that year.
  2. In 2006 an entire new building was proposed, with a total of 9,475 square feet. The cost to build was $2,050,827, and the requested bond was $1,990,827. It was voted on at Town Meeting, and lost.
  3. In 2009 the same 9,475 square foot building was presented, requesting a bond of $2,056,600. It was voted on at Town Meeting, and lost.
  4. In 2014 the same 9,475 square-foot building was again presented, but this time with a cost of $2,600,000 million. The requested bond was $2,075,000. It was voted on at Town Meeting, and lost.
  5. In 2015 an entirely new building was proposed with a total of 8,350 square feet and a cost of $2,390,000. The requested bond was $1,800,000. It was voted on at Town Meeting, and lost.
  6. This year at Town Meeting is a proposal to build an addition to the library. It would have a total completed 9,200 square feet at a cost of $1,920,000. The requested bond is $1,094,000.

Twelve years ago a very bad decision was made in abandoning the effort to add to the existing library. It has caused a lot of grief and cost the town at least $600,000. It could have been worse.

My effort here is to demonstrate that indeed real progress has been made. I’m going to vote for this bond. Here are my reasons.

First, I can state that the cost could easily be $200,000 lower. Eliminating 1,000 square feet at $200 per square foot saves you $200,000. However, waiting another year loses you that amount in building cost and interest funding. Net – Net it is not a solution.

The requested bond is $700,000 lower then the 2015 bond and almost $1 million lower then what would be required to build the new 8,350 square-foot building (from 2015) today at $2,650,000.

In other words, the library trustees are asking for a $1 million bond for more square feet instead of a $2 million bond for a smaller building.

The cost to the owner of a home valued at $300,000 will be $45.00 per year for seven years. (Approximately.) Also the unencumbered funds the town now has are substantial enough to reduce that amount further.

In my estimation the percentage of the voters at Town Meeting who will support this project has not gone below 60% (for bonds, a 2/3 majority is required, or 66%). I believe a serious effort has been made by the library trustees to seek compromise. I have also not heard any other constructive suggestions to resolve the issue. I’ve heard it suggested that building new is a better value. I disagree in this case. I will also point to the Town offices. We could have built a new building, but instead we added on to an old home. The result is more to my liking, and keeping with the character of the town.

I want to extend my sincere thanks for all who have voted against the previous library warrant articles. It was a Herculean task. I did not believe the past efforts were representative of the town’s base character. I’m not trying to convince others to vote for this — I understand all the reasons why someone might vote against it. I’m simply making clear my reasoning for voting for it.

A final point: With a clear majority it would be easy for the powers that be to approve warrant articles for much more than $100,000 per year. The current bond request funded at 10 years would require around $100,000 per year to fund, give or take. If large warrant articles were to pass, the tax impact would be much greater on a per year basis. I am in fact surprised that the library did not do a better job of creating warrant articles to this effect. Had they done so on a regular basis, starting 12 years ago, the project would be fully funded by now.

Skip Hurt

Of Books and Libraries

My mother worked at the local library when I was little. I have a picture of myself, probably 5 years old, holding a book under my arm, standing in the Lisbon Falls library. My first job, at the age of 15, was at the same library (my mother no longer worked there by then), restocking books and putting on dust jackets. My father is a published author who helps people write their memoirs. My wife, who is a professional editor, and I own well over 3,000 books. My friend Kate Braestrup, a New York Times bestselling author, came to town in January for the Book & Author Lunch program, after I introduced her to our librarian.

I’m currently reading The Three Musketeers; Into Thin Air; The Last Lion, Volume III; and Roosevelt & Churchill, 1939–1941. I also recently picked up Uncle Tom’s Cabin and What God Hath Wrote, America 1815–1843. Last year I finished Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs, so this year perhaps I should try William T. Sherman’s Memoirs.

Shortly after moving to Tuftonboro, I joined the History Book Club that meets once a month at the library. We’ve read a lot of good books since then (and a couple of duds), with my favorites being The Black Count, American Sniper, and Bunker Hill. You should join; we meet the last Wednesday of the month. March’s book is The Immortal Irishman.

My book-loving bona fides sufficiently demonstrated, let me get to the point: We do not need a new library.

We have a library. It’s a nice library. I like it. I use it — less than some but more than others.

It could possibly use a few upgrades. Perhaps a new carpet, some paint, that type of thing. What it does not need is a $2 million expansion, which will inevitably have ongoing cost increases in the years to come — such as greater operating costs and additional employees.

While the Book & Author events I have been to were well attended (Kate’s event was sold out, at 40 people), the average number of people attending events at the library was just 12 last year, according to the library’s own statistics. For instance, we typically have 5 to 7 people in the book club.

If you go back a few weeks in the Grunter, you’ll find Skip Hurt’s letter, in which he lays out the history of the pro-library crowd’s failure to achieve their goal. We are on the sixth proposal in 12 years.

Why are we still arguing over this? Building a new library (or an expanded one) is a sincere desire for some, but it is not something that we actually need. Libraries are literally a thing of the past (Carnegie was building them a century and more ago). I didn’t get any of the books  mentioned above from the library. However, the History Book Club typically gets our selections through interlibrary loan so that we have enough copies to go around.

And that brings me to the space issue for books. It doesn’t matter how large our library building is — we will never have enough room for all the books. All libraries must manage their collection. If a book has not been checked out within a certain period of time, then we should get rid of it. If a patron later comes in asking for that book, then he or she can get it through interlibrary loan. Or they can buy it on Amazon or eBay and have it delivered to their house within two days for less than $10. People who read books don’t need big, show-stopping libraries these days.

I know many people who are going to vote for the $2 million library addition. I like and respect them, and I will continue to view them the same way even though we have different opinions about expanding our already-perfectly-nice library.

I hope you will attend Town Meeting on March 14 at 7:30 PM at Tuftonboro Central School: Your opinion about spending $2 million won’t affect the outcome unless you come and vote.

Note: I initially incorrectly stated that a new library has been voted down 6 times since 2006. In fact, we are currently considering the sixth library proposal in 12 years, and it has been voted down 4 times.

Max Ledoux Acts Like a Jerk

Speaking in his signature slow-as-molasses, nasally rasp at the Budget Committee’s public hearing on the proposed budget, Max Ledoux told Carla Lootens on Tuesday night that he didn’t think she was a “nice person.” This rude remark came after Carla attempted to steer the meeting back toward budget matters following a lengthy and pointless comment from Max about the town’s 10-wheel plow truck, which broke down recently as well as got stuck in a ditch.

“We’re here to talk about the budget. You know I love you, Max, but …” said Carla, trying to be nice.

“Well, I don’t think that’s true,” Max then said.

“I’m being nice, Max,” replied Carla, to laughter from others in the room.

“You’re not a very nice person,” said Max.

“Hmm?” Said Carla, not hearing.

“I don’t think you’re a very nice person,” said Max, which is not a very nice thing to say.

“Max,” said Carla sternly, “we’re here to talk about the budget, please.”

“OK,” muttered Max. Like a jerk.

 

Memo to Budget Committee: False and Defamatory Draft Minutes

To: Carla Lootens, Chairman, and Budget Committee
CC: Selectmen
Subject: Your false and defamatory draft minutes and utter lack of understanding of the Right to Know law

Dear Carla and the Budget Committee,

Your draft minutes for the January 2, 2018, meeting contained a false and defamatory statement about me: “It was agreed that the Selectmen would be the ones to decide whether to pursue Mr. Ledoux’s violation of RSA 91-A:5 further.”

You accused me in writing of violating state law. This was a serious accusation that I do not take lightly. If it had not been for Guy Pike, you would not have altered this libelous statement from “Mr. Ledoux’s violation” to “Mr. Ledoux’s possible violation.” However, adding the word “possible” in your approved minutes does not go far enough to correct the facts.

  • The Right to Know law does not apply to me. I am not bound by it. I am not a government employee or an elected or appointed official. It’s literally impossible for me to violate 91-A.
  • As I explained to you in my previous memo — in which I cited both the actual statutes and the New Hampshire Supreme Court precedents — the public has the Right to Know how much it spends on each individual employee. Withholding the information is a violation of 91-A. I understand that Carla disagrees with me and that she has a different opinion. But she has failed to cite any laws or court rulings, instead relying on a her “gut feeling” as well as a vague email from the anti-transparency New Hampshire Municipal Association.
  • Furthermore, it was not “agreed” by the budget committee that the selectmen would be the ones “to decide whether to pursue Mr. Ledoux’s violation of RSA 91-A:5 further.” Gordon asked, “Does it behoove the Committee and/or the Selectmen to pursue this? Is it a legal issue?” Carla said, “I think that’s up to the Selectmen.” There was then a brief silence. “Is it a chargeable offense?” asked Gordon, followed by another silence. The budget committee members did not, in fact, vote or make any decision on the question.

By the way, Carla’s repeated insistence that Joe’s videos are the only “official” videos suggests technological naiveté. A video is a video, and it shows what it shows. There is no Ministry of Truth in Tuftonboro where residents must go to obtain “official” news. I always post the full video without any edits whatsoever. When I can, I also post timestamps to make it easier for people to skip to the part of the video that interests them. I also sometimes post shorter videos and my comments. All viewers are free to comment on the videos or to offer their own opinions; my site is an open forum.

Many of the videos on my website are actually Joe’s; the viewership of his videos has increased since I’ve started sharing them online. I have great respect for Joe and his work—would the selectmen have started posting his videos online if I hadn’t done so first? The selectmen didn’t begin uploading the meeting videos to YouTube until after I’d been doing so for more than a year. Even now, Karen Koch is posting them only in half-hour segments, sometimes over a period of several days, which is not viewer-friendly. I offered to show Karen how to combine multiple video files into one; she has not taken me up on that offer, which still stands.

Gordon said at your last meeting that he “questions [Max’s] motives every day,” to which Bob added, “every day.”

My motives are transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility. Whatever Carla’s motives, her actions have come down on the side of secrecy, unaccountability, and fiscal imprudence. It is good that she is not seeking re-election.

Regards,

Max

Keene Sentinel Editorial: Monadnock officials owe district citizens some answers

Local government officials don’t want the public to know how taxpayer money is to be spent. It sounds familiar, but it’s not the Tuftonboro board of selectmen (Lloyd Wood, Bill Marcussen, Chip Albee) or the Budget Committee Chairman (Carla Lootens). This Keene Sentinal editorial from last month is about the Monadnock Regional School District.

Sentinel Editorial

Open, accessible, accountable and responsive: Monadnock officials owe district citizens some answers

Dec 12, 2017
Governing is difficult, tedious work, often not pleasant, but necessary. Those who give their time and energy to it are, generally, to be thanked. But there are those who revel in holding even a little power over their fellow citizens; in being on the inside, with information others lack; and in playing a disproportionate role in determining the course of our communities.

And sometimes, they get so caught up in that role that they forget why they’re really there, and that they serve at the will of the people.

“All power residing originally in, and being derived from, the people, all the magistrates and officers of government are their substitutes and agents, and at all times accountable to them. Government, therefore, should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive.”

These words, from Article 8 of the N.H. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, are the underpinning of our state’s Right-to-Know Law. The purpose of the law is to hold public officials — both elected and appointed — accountable by allowing the public access to not only the results of government, but also the process. Thus, officials are bound, with few exceptions, to conduct official business in public, to answer questions posed by the public regarding their actions, and to make available any documents or records that would inform the public about the causes and effects of those actions.

It is the mechanism by which officials at every level of government — from the governor to state lawmakers to county commissioners to those elected or appointed to run our cities, towns and schools — must adhere to the principle that as the wording of the Constitutional passage above notes: All power resides in, and is derived from, the people.

The great danger of a government unfettered by such public scrutiny isn’t only that those in power might enrich themselves at the public’s expense or pass laws, rules and policies detrimental to the general citizenry (or specific subgroups) without opposition. Equally worrisome is that those in power might, if unchallenged, forget they serve at the public’s bidding and for the public’s benefit, not their own.

Which brings us to the Monadnock Regional School District’s latest flap — over Business Administrator Jane Fortson and the public’s right to information on her absence and, in particular, how the district’s finances are being handled during it.

Fortson, The Sentinel learned last week, was recently suspended, with pay. Inquiries to almost all of the district’s 13 board members and Superintendent Lisa Witte were rebuffed.

The Right-to-Know Law does give public bodies latitude in discussing certain personnel matters. Specifically, officials can refuse to reveal information that would potentially harm a person’s reputation, and they can refuse comment on disciplinary actions. Either might account for Witte and board members declining comment on why Fortson was suspended.

But those exemptions don’t extend to discussing the state of the district’s finances. So, when asked who is handling the business operations in Fortson’s absence — an absence that’s occurring in the midst of constructing the district’s 2018-19 budget that will hit every taxpayer’s wallet and affect every school child’s education — there is no excuse for not answering directly.

Yet board members have repeatedly done so, one even indicating she’s been told that to comment at all would leave her open to being removed from the board. And Witte has, after first declining comment, offered only a vague statement that acknowledges she’s ultimately responsible for the proper operation of all district functions “working with our competent and dedicated staff.” Well, we’d hope so. But that still doesn’t reveal who’s actually handling the $32.7 million in public money entrusted to the school administration.

One proper question for the board and superintendent surely is whether the suspension has to do with those public funds. Thus far, only school board member Neil Moriarty has been willing to comment on that, and only to say the suspension “has nothing to do with financial issues.”

More troubling still is the behavior of at least one board member, who gloatingly told a Sentinel reporter during last Tuesday’s meeting that she wouldn’t be able to find out anything, because the board had just voted to seal the minutes of its nonpublic session on the matter.

Such taunting, childish actions convey more than disdain for the reporter. They reveal a contempt for the public and its right to know how its money is being spent and how decisions regarding its children are being made.

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.