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.Published in