What Are They Hiding?

What could you do with $20,000? This past December, the Tuftonboro board of selectmen (at the time Carolyn Sundquist, Bill Marcussen, and Lloyd Wood) decided to spend what would end up being almost $20,000 of Tuftonboro taxpayers’ money on attorney fees paid to Richard Sager to pursue a lawsuit against Bob McWhirter and me for the “crime” of having made Right to Know requests to inspect government records. Our right to know what government officials are doing on our behalf is guaranteed by the New Hampshire constitution, and codified by RSA 91-A (the Right to Know law). I have that right to know, Bob has that right to know, and you have that right to know.

Rather than comply with the law, the selectmen chose to file a lawsuit against us — an action that is hard to interpret as anything other than an attempt to intimidate us and inflict personal financial harm. We are very grateful to the many fellow Tuftonboro residents who contributed to our defense fund, and also to our skillful attorney, Jim Cowles of Walker & Varney. The selectmen, bizarrely, filed a motion with the court to force us to reveal the “name, telephone number, address, and email address” of each of our benefactors. The court rejected this motion. Why would the selectmen want such personal information? I can think of no good reason.

The selectmen say that they were always willing to give us the government records — the emails. They just wanted to charge us a fee for them, even though the law states very clearly that “no fee shall be charged for the inspection or delivery, without copying, of governmental records, whether in paper, electronic, or other form.” Sager argued in court — unconvincingly — that this sentence in the law doesn’t make sense, because if read literally, it means the selectmen could not charge us a fee. Judge Ignatius agreed that the law, if read literally, means that “no fee shall be charged,” and she ruled on August 8 that the selectmen cannot, in fact, charge us a fee.

The reason this is important is that emails, being electronic, can contain a large number of pages. The selectmen wanted to charge us 25 cents per page, which would quickly turn into thousands of dollars. Records that you can inspect only after spending thousands of dollars are essentially records that you — and most people — will never be able to inspect.

Bob and I requested to inspect Carolyn Sundquist’s official emails because we and others in town suspected that she was making decisions about town business on her own (in violation of RSA 41:8), or with the other two selectmen but outside of public meetings (in violation of RSA 91-A). Our suspicious were confirmed when Guy Pike obtained 40 pages of emails concerning the Brown Road boulder fiasco. Those emails revealed that Carolyn had, apparently without the knowledge of the other selectmen, given Ted and Carol Steinman permission to block access to Lower Beech Pond, which is a state-own public body of water. The Steinmans followed Carolyn’s instructions and spent money placing boulders in the town’s right-of-way along the road. The current board then had to authorize the road agent to remove those boulders, which cost the taxpayers around $800. The Steinmans are now suing the town, disputing the boundaries of the right-of-way and alleging that the road agent trespassed. Perhaps they will win, or perhaps the town will win, but either way, it will probably cost taxpayers at least another $20,000 in fees to Richard Sager. All of this is due to Carolyn’s unilateral actions.

It makes you wonder what is in those emails Bob and I requested. Why were Carolyn and Bill and Lloyd willing to spend so much taxpayer money to make it nearly impossible to read them?

We still don’t know what’s in the emails. Even though Judge Ignatius ruled that the selectmen could not charge a fee for the electronic copies of the emails, and after eight months of legal entanglement, and almost an entire year after Bob first made his Right to Know request, the selectmen (now Lloyd Wood, Bill Marcussen, and Chip Albee) have, incredibly, still failed to turn over any of the emails that are in question.

Bob made his Right to Know request on October 17, 2016. The selectmen must comply with the New Hampshire constitution, with the Right to Know law (RSA 91-A), and with Judge Ignatius’s order. They must immediately — 11 months late — give us access to Carolyn Sundquist’s official emails.

Grunter Editorial Contains False Information

Tom Beeler published an editorial in the Granite State News today that contains several falsehoods and misrepresentations.

‘The Grunter’ • Est. 1859


Editorials, while unsigned, represent a consensus of the views of the editorial board of the Granite State News

Toxic Tuftonboro indeed!

This week we publish an Other Voices commentary on this page from Tuftonboro’s Barry Ennis. As he does fairly regularly in his letters, Ennis comes close to unacceptable disrespect in his criticisms, but we publish this letter to allow our readers to see how far the attack on trust in government has gone in Tuftonboro.

Please read his remarks and then continue here.

Mr. Ennis seems to have joined the small group of Tuftonboro residents who have committed themselves to find something – anything – they can use to foment distrust of the board of selectmen. They have sued the town, accusing the selectmen of violating the right-to-know law, RSA 91-A, as it applies to meetings. The result? The court found one technical error in posting a meeting and an error in judgment when the selectmen allowed a department head who was being reviewed in nonpublic session to bring up and discuss his budget, a subject that should only be discussed in a public meeting.

Carroll County Superior Court ruled that the Tuftonboro selectmen had violated the Right to Know law.

It was not brought to the judge’s attention that selectmen made that budget a topic at the next regular meeting.

That is irrelevant and has no bearing on whether the selectmen violated the Right to Know law. They did.

They have tried to portray the current selectmen as exercising control over cemetery maintenance and denying the cemetery trustees the right to manage it.

Because the selectmen overstepped their statutory authority and exerted control over the cemeteries illegally.

It turns out that years ago – long before the current board members lived in town, and likely even before the law relating to the duties of cemetery trustees was written – that all town grounds maintenance was done by one contractor as a matter of convenience.

That is irrelevant to whether or not it was illegal for them to make decisions about the cemeteries.

When the subject was raised, selectmen promptly turned the maintenance of cemeteries over to the trustees.

Actually, cemetery trust fund chairman Sue Weeks informed them they lacked the statutory authority to make payments for work done in the cemetery. They ignored her and went ahead and made payments they weren’t authorized to make.

They have made an issue of being denied the right to speak at meetings, when anyone can ask to be placed on the agenda to discuss anything.

Carolyn Sundquist has refused to put me on the agenda when she did not want to hear what I wanted to say about automatic employee raises.

They have asserted a right to ask questions and make comments at any time rather than at the end of the meeting.

This is a mischaracterization of what happened. The selectmen were engaging in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination by allow Elissa Paquette to ask questions at any point during the meeting, but refusing to take questions from anyone else.

They have insisted that the board hold evening meetings and promised a petition warrant article requiring them to do so.

I asked the selectmen three times to please have at least one meeting per month in the evening so that more people could attend if they wanted to attend. The selectmen refused, stated they preferred having meetings during the day. I will be submitting a petition warrant article requiring them to have evening meetings, but only because they refused to hold at least one meeting — not all — in the evening.

They have requested thousands of e-mails, clearly trying to find some misbehavior they can pillory.

Tom Beeler has no idea what Bob McWhirter is looking for, because Tom Beeler has never asked Bob.

They belittle the fact that someone has to do their bidding, implying that town employees have nothing better to do.

I have no idea what this refers to.

They also dismiss the right to privacy of those sending e-mails and want their fellow taxpayers to pay for their fishing expedition as a matter of right.

Emails are government records. The readers of the Granite State News might be more aware of this fact if Beeler had published the letter I wrote to the editor on the subject, but he declined to print it. Furthermore, the law is extremely clear that the selectmen may not charge people a fee to inspect government records.

That issue has now been taken to Superior Court, where the town is seeking guidance on how it should handle these requests.

The selectmen have sued Bob McWhirter and me, using the power of local government to punish us for having the audacity to exercise our rights.

Now they are trying to make an issue about a property owner blocking access to a road.

Ennis does not go to selectmen’s meetings

Perhaps because he works and the meetings are during the day?

and there is reason to doubt he has even viewed the videos of those meetings available at the library.

What reason would that be? Has Beeler viewed Ennis’s library record to see what items he has checked out?

The issue he raises has been discussed (by our count) five times in open meetings, beginning with the July 25 meeting.

Beeler does not attend the selectmen’s meetings, so he may not be aware that what Sundquist said during public meetings is different from what she was communicating in private to the property owners.

The board as a whole – not Chairman Carolyn Sundquist alone – has taken seriously the issue of blocked access and has gradually escalated its response to the point where, as we report in this issue, they have asked Town Counsel Rick Sager to determine who controls the right-of-way at issue and what actions the town can take.

Perhaps they should have done that before Carolyn Sundquist advised the property owners to “go ahead with placing boulders in the access.”

This is not the secret conspiracy Ennis wants to accuse Sundquist of perpetrating. He should not take the misinformation someone is feeding him as truth.

Someone is being fed misinformation — the readers of the Granite State News.

The people involved in these actions have failed repeatedly to demonstrate lack of openness in town government or even a refusal to respond to questions and requests.

Does this look like “a refusal to respond to questions and requests”? How’s that for “openness in town government”?

To us, the selectmen are trying to do the job they were elected to do, conscientiously and openly.

The intention seems to be to sow distrust of Tuftonboro selectmen in general and Selectman Sundquist in particular.

Why this misguided effort? What is behind the open animosity (evident in Ennis’s letter) with which it is pursued?

The selectmen’s antipathy toward public oversight is what’s behind the distrust.

Clearly there are personal grudges involved – one member of the group has at least three – but getting even cannot be everyone’s motivation. What is it?

I have no idea who Beeler’s referring to.

To us this all started when the selectmen openly supported the library trustees’ third effort to get a new library built and used library reserve funds to have conceptual plans done to present to voters. Yet it’s hard to believe that successful opposition to a new library is driving this effort to make mountains out of molehills.

We think it is time for residents to say “Enough is enough!” and show their support for the selectmen and their town.

In fact, some residents are saying “Enough is enough!” And the Granite State News is doing its best to malign those residents.

Emails Are Governmental Records

Tom Beeler, the editor of the Granite State News, added an “editor’s note” to a letter he printed two weeks ago from Molly Powell (my wife). He wrote: “What is being requested is not ‘a record’ or ‘a document’ but every email sent or received by the town—an estimated 11,000—some of which contain very private information that no one gave permission for just anyone to see.”

RSA 91-A:1-a III defines “governmental records” as “any information created, accepted, or obtained by, or on behalf of, any public body, or a quorum or majority thereof, or any public agency in furtherance of its official function.” This includes “any written communication or other information, whether in paper, electronic, or other physical form.”

And RSA 91-A:1-a IV defines “information” as “knowledge, opinions, facts, or data of any kind and in whatever physical form kept or maintained, including, but not limited to, written, aural, visual, electronic, or other physical form.”

That an email is a government record is not in question.

The City of Manchester, for instance, includes the following 91-A disclaimer in every email sent from the @manchesternh.gov domain: “The Right-To-Know Law (RSA 91-A) provides that most e-mail communications, to or from City employees and City volunteers regarding the business of the City of Manchester, are government records available to the public upon request. Therefore, this email communication may be subject to public disclosure.”

Indeed, the New Hampshire Secretary of State made a Right to Know request last month to the City of Manchester for all communications about a pilot program for electronic poll books. Essentially, the Secretary of State is requesting 18 months’ worth of emails. That is far more than Bob McWhirter has requested. The selectmen estimate that 11,000 emails would be responsive to Bob’s request, but this estimation has not been in any way substantiated. Bob refined his original request, however, drastically reducing the number of emails that would be responsive—11,000 was an estimate that is no longer relevant.

Tom thinks it matters whether the records contain “very private information that no one gave permission for just anyone to see.”

In Mans v. Lebanon School Board, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that concern for “invasion of privacy” should not be so broadly interpreted as to defeat the purpose of the right-to-know statue. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that “whether information is ‘confidential’ must be determined objectively, and not based on the subjective expectations of the party generating it.” (See Lamy v. N.H. Publ Util. Comm’n, among other cases.)

But Bob and I are not disputing whether certain parts of the emails we have requested will be redacted. The issue is that the selectmen are attempting to illegally charge us a fee to do the redaction. However, there is nothing in the statute that allows the government to charge a fee for the labor of responding to a Right to Know request. As Tuftonboro Selectman Carolyn Sundquist herself stated on October 17 in a Selectmen’s meeting and on November 1 in a Budget Committee meeting, we already pay the staff’s salary, and responding to Right to Know requests is part of their “normal work schedule.” That’s a direct quote from Carolyn, on November 1 (the video starts at 58:52, Carolyn’s comment is at 1:00:20):

Thank you to everyone who has very generously contributed to our legal defense fund. Through the kindness of fellow citizens, we have raised $2,215 so far to fight the selectmen’s lawsuit against us. The hearing is on January 27 at 9 AM at Carroll County Superior Court in Ossipee.

Is Tuftonboro Miserly?

The Tuftonboro budget committee held its most recent meeting on November 1. The board discussed a 2% “merit” raise and an automatic 1.5% “cost of living adjustment” increase in salaries for town employees. This is in addition to the 15% increase in the employee-compensation budget line, approved earlier this year. Keep in mind that employee benefits are based on their salaries, so employee benefits will increase whenever salaries increase. Have you had that kind of raise in your own job in the last couple of years?

Steve Brinser, the vice chair of the budget committee, is concerned that the town is raising costs: “We have people in town who for the past two years, they’re on social security, they got zero increase, but we continue to increase the costs to taxpayers, even though their income isn’t keeping pace with the increased costs.”

Carla Lootens, the chairman of the budget committee, replied that not many people in town fall into that category, whereas “so much of our money comes from” waterfront and island properties. She said: “Out of 695 waterfront properties, do you know that 459 of them are owned from people out of state? They pay taxes here.”

Bob Theve, a member of the committee, interjected, “I’m one of those people that, you know, is on social security, isn’t taken care of, and I have an option, if I don’t want to live here—I don’t have to live here. If I don’t like the tax structure, I can go to another town.”

Helen Hartshorn, also a member of the budget committee, stated: “I want to make sure our town employees are making a living wage. I don’t want to see them be under what a living wage is.” Steve asked her what a living wage is, what figure she had in mind. She had no answer. Town employees currently make, on average, about twice as much as the average resident in Tuftonboro. The median full-time income for women in Tuftonboro is $30,962; for men, it is $44,493. Average those together and you get $37,727.50. The average full-time town employee in Tuftonboro receives more than $70,000 in compensation. The fire chief, for instance, receives more than $46,000 annually just for his retirement and health benefits.

Rick Sager, the selectmen’s attorney, recently stated in a Facebook posting that he believes our town budget was “too miserly in the past.” This was in response to former budget committee member Bob McWhirter stating that Tuftonboro has increased spending by more than $800,000 in the past five years.

Do you agree with Steve Brinser we should continue to keep our costs in check so that Tuftonboro has among the lowest municipal tax rates in the state? Or do you agree with Carla that it doesn’t matter if we raise costs because “so much of our money” comes from rich out-of-staters who can’t vote in local elections? Do you agree with Bob that if you don’t like the costs the budget committee imposes on you, you should just move to another town? Do you think that a person bringing in $70,000 in total compensation is earning less than “a living wage”? The 2016 budget appropriation was $3,997,649.00. Does that sound miserly to you?

The next budget committee meeting is November 15 at 4PM at the town offices.

Carrying Pictures of Chairman Now

Regarding the issue of public comment at selectmen’s meetings in Tuftonboro, which is supported by many, including the “Grunter” as well as Hector M. Ledoux, I have this to say to the current chair of the Tuftonboro board and her authoritarian rule. Let’s call her Chairman Now.

That has a nice despotic sound doesn’t it? For local government, engaging in public intercourse should be a desirable and pleasant experience. Try it, Carolyn. You might like it. Why I would even bet that Marcussen and Woody would come to enjoy engaging in it also.

This post appeared as a letter to the editor in the November 3, 2016, Granite State News.

Tuftonboro Town-Employee Compensation

Last week the Tuftonboro selectmen voted to give town employees a 3.5% raise. This will consist of a 2% merit raise if the employee receives a positive performance review, in addition to a 1.5% Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). The COLA is pegged to the Consumer Price Index of northern New England, which changes from year to year. Most people who work in the private sector do not receive an automatic COLA raise. But public employees are to receive these raises, in addition to merit raises. Selectman Carolyn Sundquist stated on August 15, “There is no doubt in my mind that anyone with a satisfactory [not positive] review will move up a step” in the compensation schedule — meaning that employees will receive a raise.

When I asked the selectmen whether town employees who did not receive positive performance reviews would receive a COLA raise, Selectmen Bill Marcussen replied yes. In other words, according to Marcussen, all town employees will receive automatic raises even if they do not receive positive performance reviews. Indeed, on August 15, Marcussen stated, “In an ideal world, we would always like to give people as much more money as we can.” After I pressed them, the selectmen conceded that town employees should not receive raises if they receive poor performance reviews.

As a reminder, what Tuftonboro spends on public-employee compensation increased by 15% last year, following our Town Meeting vote. It now totals $1.6 million annually. At the time, I suggested that if we wanted to give our employees raises, we should do so — but that we should simultaneously cut spending elsewhere in the budget. Carla Lootens, chairman of the budget committee, emphatically stated at Town Meeting that there was “no fat” to be cut from the budget. The 2016 budget appropriated 9% more than Tuftonboro spent in 2015.

According to the NH Bureau of Employment Security, the average income for an individual in Tuftonboro is $33,143. The average total compensation of a full-time employee of the town of Tuftonboro is about two and half times higher than that: $84,910.

You can request a public document titled “2016 personnel administration” from Karen Koch at selectmen@tuftonboro.org to see for yourself. This document shows that the average full-time public employee receives approximately $84,910 in total compensation. I’m using “total compensation” instead of “salary” because total compensation represents the cost to the taxpayer for each employee. For instance, one full-time library employee currently receives a $41,933 salary, but his true cost to the taxpayer is $59,533.50. During the meeting, I stated that the average full-time public employee receives around $70,000 in compensation. After speaking with Selectman Lloyd Wood during the meeting, I realized that I had erroneously included two part-time library employees as full-time employees.

In her article about the Tuftonboro selectmen’s meeting, Elissa Paquette wrote that my conversation with Lloyd about public employees was “not clear.” I know it was unclear to Elissa during the meeting, because she asked me to clarify—which I did. You can watch the video of our exchange judge for yourself whether I explained it clearly.

As I stated repeatedly at the meeting, I am not questioning whether any particular employees deserve the salary and benefits that they are currently receiving. My question is this: Is it sustainable for a small town like ours to pay our town employees more than twice what the average resident earns? And if we wish to do so, shouldn’t we trim the budget elsewhere to keep costs from ballooning over time?

This post has been submitted as a letter to the editor of the Granite State News, and should appear in the September 1, 2016, edition.

Let (Does?) Freedom Reign

I love America. Period. End. No perfection here, not in my little town, or in this state (“where is New Hampshire, again??”). And certainly there is no perfection in ‘politics’ – in any level of our ‘democratic’ and ‘representative’ governments.

“Perfection” was not written into the Bill of Rights, nor the Constitution.

FREEDOM was, and should continue to be, the basic tenet of our American lives.

Our Revolution waged over 8 years, unofficially started here in NH with the first “revolutionary” military activity between Loyalists and Patriots, with the capture of Fort William in December 1774. There were 6 battles in NH, 12 in Mass., and 137 in South Carolina alone.

In all, there were 1,546 military engagements over the course of those 8 long years.

Total American deaths: 6,824 (90% were from the Continental Army), 10,000 deaths from disease and another 8,500 died in British prisons.

The ratio of American deaths to the free white male demographic, was 1 in 20. This ratio would equal 3 million today.

24,000 British boys and men died “for” “our” Revolution.

There were 80,000 colonial inhabitants living mainly along the New England coast, when the Revolution broke out. Of the 2.5 million people having made this their new home, 20% were black slaves.

In 1775, the slave population of Virginia was 40%, NY 14%, Connecticut 8% and Rhode Island %.

Clearly, “we” had yet to graciously broaden the scope of “freedom,” that bloody perspective, (or lack of) destined to stain American soils for decades, scores and a few scary centuries to come.

Sadly, our country has become diseased and it would appear, to this citizen, anyway, that freedom, no longer reigns. Not in Tuftonboro, not in New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die”), or in America.

My country , ‘Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty, of Thee I sing.
Land where my Fathers’ died, Land of the Pilgrims Pride,
From ev’ry mountain side, let Freedom ring.

My native country, Thee
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills
Like that above.

Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet Freedom’s song;
Let mortal’s tongue awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break
The sound prolong.

Samuel Francis Smith, written 1831.

Everyone Should Be Able to Ask Questions at Meetings

Here comes another Fourth of July. Independence Day they call it. A year ago in a letter that never got published, I called out the Tuftonboro selectmen for having their heads buried in the sand with their no public comment gag rule, also known as the McWhirter Muzzle rule, at selectmen meetings.

Well, I was wrong. Duffy and Wood may have had their heads buried in the sand, but Selectmen Chair Carolyn Sundquist obviously has hers stuck somewhere else.

At a budget committee meeting on May 24, Sundquist, who is the selectmen’s representative to that group, said that the public doesn’t have a right to speak, and “Could I just ask, what would come from the public that would make us change our minds on something?” Talk about a condescending attitude!

At the June 20 selectmen’s meeting, she refused to share a memo with the cemetery trustees because there “would be no public benefit from the trustees seeing it.” How would she know? She doesn’t allow or listen to public input. If one can ask a question, all should be able to ask a question. All in or all out. All men are created equal. To say one person can speak because she’s the reporter doesn’t cut it.

No special exceptions. It’s called democracy. It’s why we celebrate our freedoms. It’s government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Sundquist has become Tuftonboro’s version of Hillary. The best thing that could happen to Tuftonboro would be if Carolyn Sundquist became Carolyn Soonquits.

Watching Phineas Graves rolling in his grave.

This post appeared as a letter to the editor of the Granite State News.

Granite State News Refuses to Correct False Reporting

The Granite State News has repeatedly misreported the facts in recent weeks about a non-existent contract for maintenance work and the statutory responsibility for operating the cemeteries in Tuftonboro. After the paper misreported that there was an “ongoing contract,” I gave the paper’s reporter, Elissa Paquette, proof that there were no signatures on the 2010 document, and therefore it was not a contract. She then wrote, contrary to absolute fact, that there was a “contract signed in 2010.” The publicly available document that Selectmen Carolyn Sundquist originally thought was a contract was not signed by anyone (which I explicitly pointed out to Paquette), and even if it had been signed, it had an expiration date of April 15, 2011. It was never a valid contract. The Granite State News has knowingly attempted to mislead its readers and owes all of us a public retraction and correction. However, editor Tom Beeler insisted to me in an email that Ms. Paquette had reported what others had said. That is false. No one at the May 9 meeting said that there was a “contract signed in 2010.” To the contrary, Selectmen Sundquist stated that there was, in fact, no “paper contract.” See for yourself:

Despite this, Mr Beeler has refused to issue a correction. He did offer to print this letter without comment, however.

To the editor’s great credit, he has published almost every one of my letters over the past year, despite our obvious philosophical differences, and I do thank him for the opportunity for this public forum. I also thank him for reprinting my letter the other week that had been accidentally curtailed the week before. I accept his apology and say it is unnecessary because the abridgment of my letter was clearly unintentional.

The Tuftonboro selectmen acted quickly after I raised the concern on May 9 that they had unintentionally over-stepped their authority by exercising power that is by law the purview of the cemetery trustees. In a hastily scheduled non-regular meeting on Friday, May 13, the selectmen discussed written communication from the town’s attorney, Rick Sager, who advised them to “divorce themselves from the Cemetery Trustees in regards to clerical type responsibilities,” according to the meeting’s minutes. No doubt Mr. Sager’s advice was based on review of the applicable state laws.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t present for the May 13 meeting, and there is no video recording of the meeting for the public to review because the selectmen broke with their customary habit of sending an email with a meeting agenda to a mailing list (which you can sign up for at tuftonboro.org). To be clear, the New Hampshire Right to Know law requires only that they post a notice in two public places at least 24 hours before their meetings; they have no obligation to send out an email. They met the letter of the law for their May 13 meeting, but since the meeting was held on a non-regular day, and no email was sent out, no member of the public, including the videographer, was present, other than Paquette of the Granite State News. I asked Selectman Sundquist on June 6th if, since the meeting was not on the regular schedule, they had simply forgotten to send out the email notice. She replied that the meeting had been properly noticed. I asked if they had decided not to send out the email. She stated the meeting had been properly noticed.

On May 19 the Granite State News quoted Selectman Bill Marcussen as saying, at that impromptu meeting, “The cemetery trustees have clear authority.”

I thank the selectmen for acting so quickly to set the record straight about which public body is responsible for the maintenance of the cemeteries. The Granite State News characterized it as the selectmen “ceding” power to the cemetery trustees, but this is not entirely accurate since the selectmen never had the legal power to cede in the first place. The cemetery trustees have always had the “clear authority.” The selectmen usurped the trustees’ power, but now that they have acknowledged as much, I hope we can all move on.

Tuftonboro Selectmen May Have Unintentionally Broken New Hampshire Law

At the May 9 meeting of the Tuftonboro Board of Selectmen, I expressed my concern that they may have unintentionally broken the law by voting on April 25 to pay the bill for maintenance work done on town cemeteries.

There is a separate (and to me less concerning) issue of whether there is a contract between the town and the landscaper who did the work. The Granite State News has reported inaccurately for the past two weeks that there is an “ongoing” contract and a contract that was “signed in 2010.” But the document from 2010 has no signatures on it and therefore was never at any point a contract. Further, this unsigned document has an expiration date of April 15, 2011. Selectmen Carolyn Sundquist acknowledged that there is no contract at the May 9 meeting (I also gave a copy of the document to reporter Elissa Paquette). I don’t know the landscaper and am not making any judgment whatsoever about him. This is not about him or the good work he has done for the town.

This is about the selectmen’s apparent decision to overstep their bounds. The landscaper submitted an invoice on April 8, after the cemetery trustees’ April meeting. The next trustee meeting was scheduled for May 3, the first time they’d be able to review the invoice. Sue Weeks told the selectmen at their April 25 meeting that the cemetery trustees were going to review the invoice on May 3. It is not unreasonable for contractors to wait less than 30 days to be paid on an invoice. (Many invoices I’ve seen ask for payment within 60 days.) The trustees had not left the bill unpaid; they had simply not had a chance to review it yet.

Selectmen Sundquist stated on May 9 that no trustee had stepped forward to say “that is our responsibility.” This is not accurate: Sue Weeks said on April 25, “The trustees are responsible for the cemetery maintenance.”

The selectmen knew that the cemetery maintenance was the responsibility of the cemetery trustees, knew that the trustees were meeting the following week, and knew that the trustees intended to review the landscaper’s invoice and pay him.

By state law, the selectmen are not authorized to make payments for the maintenance of town cemeteries—unless I am misreading the law. But I am not a legal expert, so I have asked the selectmen to review the statutes and state for the record whether the selectmen have the authority to override other boards.

This may seem picayune, but it’s important. Selectman Lloyd Wood has stated in recent meetings that the town enjoys a good reputation with the state. But would the state continue to hold us in high esteem if the selectmen were to break the law? It seems that the selectmen not only took power from the cemetery trustees, who are elected by us to maintain the cemeteries; they also took power from the Town Meeting. Only Town Meeting can vote to make the selectmen trustees of the cemetery trust funds. I’m concerned the selectmen have inadvertently opened up the town for liability in a lawsuit. Even if it were not a violation of state law for the selectmen to usurp the power of another board, it would be setting a bad precedent. If the current board of selectmen can override the cemetery trustees, a future board of selectmen could override, say, the library trustees.

We have separation of powers at the federal, state, and local levels for a reason. We put systems of checks and balances into place so that we don’t have to rely on the good intentions of our fellow human beings, who are, like all of us, imperfect. James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

I don’t think the selectmen intended to break the law, but I fear that they did.