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Joyce Endee

County Commissioners again seeking new secretary

Board struggles with public involvement in meetings

November 29, 2012
OSSIPEE — Carroll County Commissioners are on the hunt for a new recording secretary.

Though he didn't release specific details about the resignation, Commissioner David Sorensen announced Nov. 22 that Michelle Clancy had quit. This makes the third person to leave that position in the past year and a half. The recording secretary is responsible for attending the weekly Wednesday morning commissioner's meetings and typing up the resulting meetings minutes for correction and approval the following week.

Over the past two years that seemingly easy task has turned into an unenviable and confusing one with the commissioner's expectation of what should be in the minutes changing on a near weekly basis. One week the public's comments are included in the minutes only to have the next week's minutes tell the reader to watch the privately owned recordings at www.governmentoversite.com if they care to hear what the public had to say. Then the next week, it was decided that only the commissioner's responses would be printed in the minutes without the public's comment that brought on the response. Then it was back to leaving out public comment and referring readers back to the website to view the video.

One week the minutes read like a transcript in a mix of first, second, and third person grammar and the next week were quick and to the point with a bullet list of topics covered.

Though unclear why Clancy resigned, the past two recording secretaries cited confusion as to what the commissioners wanted in the minutes and the way they were treated by the commission's clerk, Commissioner Asha Kenney, as their reasons for leaving.

Budget time

During the past month or so the weekly county commission meetings have consisted of the heads of all county departments presenting their proposed 2013 budgets. The commissioners have to have their proposed budget complete and submitted to N.H. Department of Revenue in December. Then the full county delegation gets a hold of it, the department heads will likely be pulled into delegation meetings to again present their budgets and a final 2013 budget will get approved by that board no later than March.

With the budget up $1.8 million, the commissioners were set to meet again Nov. 28 with all department heads to try to trim that increase down. Both Sorensen and Commissioner Solomon said at the Nov. 21 meeting that there are items in the budget related to employee costs that the commissioners "have no control over" including health insurance and worker's compensation costs. Either the budget has to be trimmed further, Sorensen said, or the commissioners are going to have to use additional surplus money to reduce the increase in the county tax rate, "or a little of both. Probably a little of both," Sorensen said.

Commissioners seemed reluctant at the Nov. 21 meeting to use more than $500,000 of the surplus, as debate continues about what will become of the old nursing home and how much money the county will have to invest in improvements.

With no big projects or hires in the proposed budget thus far, the commissioners have chipped away at a few larger budget items. They support County Farm manager Will DeWitte's proposal to get the Farm back into the practice of raising beef cattle. With the estimated cost of $3,300 for the purchase of two calves and related equipment, the resulting beef will be used to provide food for the nursing home and is not intended for sale to the general public. In an interview Tuesday, DeWitte said he not only hopes to supply the nursing home with beef but also use the raising of the cows as an educational program open to county residents in cooperation with UNH Cooperative Extension.

Despite a well-prepared presentation by corrections officer Ian Morrison, the commissioners have decided against funding the purchase of a dog to help patrol the jail. Purchasing the dog and its needed supplies would have been a $10,000 investment the first year. Morrison explained the dog would be used to track inmates that escape, detect drugs in the jail and on the grounds, and would be a useful resource on-call to assist local police departments with locating missing people. The whole idea hinged on whether or not the new sheriff would keep that department's K-9 program in service once he takes office in January. At the Nov. 21 meeting, Sorensen announced that discussions with sheriff-elect Domenic Richardi indicate that he plans to keep their K-9. With that, and in the interest of not duplicating services, the commissioners removed the jail's K-9 request from the budget.

They are interested, however, in purchasing guns for their officers. In a second presentation from the jail, corrections officer Michael Baker spelled out the need for the requested $27,500 in additional equipment to include handguns, shotguns, ammunition, a gun safe, eye and ear protection, training suits, handcuffs, shackles, and Taser equipment. It was reported that at least some of the corrections officers are using their own personal firearms while on duty since the county budget has not provided them. Armed corrections officers can be seen outside the jail when the inmates are having their recreation time and working on the Farm. Baker explained the guns are needed to keep the officers and the public safe when the inmates are taken off campus for appointments and community work details. Officers are also armed when they conduct home checks. The commissioners cut Baker's request down to $10,000. Thus far, the commissioners have agreed, however to fund about $75,000 in improved security measures at the recommendation of the jail subcommittee and the study that was done following an incident last year in which an inmate escaped by scaling the razor-topped fence. The ramped up security measures to be installed in 2013 include additional cameras and a perimeter fence.

Public participation

Of late, the county commissioner's meetings have been much tamer. Absent has been the yelling, accusations, and seemingly out-of-control nature of the meetings since, following input from voters on Primary Day, Sorensen said he was taking back control of the meetings.

Much like the minutes, however, the commissioners seem to be struggling with determining what the public input portion of their meetings will look like moving forward. By state law, elected boards are not required to have public input as part of their regular meetings but most, including the county commissioners, do allow it.

Asking questions of the commissioners and expecting a response appears it will now be limited, however, as Sorensen made the announcement Nov. 21, "Public comments are just what they are, comments. They are not necessarily questions; commissioners don't have to answer the questions. They are strictly comments. We've been advised by our county attorney that is the way we should operate. So we are going to try to hold it to that."

Kenney took County Attorney Tom Dewhurst's advice differently, however. Kenney's interpretation was the public can ask the questions but "we shouldn't go back and forth…we cannot limit the public. We shouldn't be arguing and going back and forth that is what I understood the county attorney said."

Commissioner-elect David Babson disagreed with the commissioner's new move to limit the public questioning the board, "I disagree with you 100 percent. The public has every right to ask a question. You don't have to answer it," he said.

What to do was left in the hands of the county attorney, however, when Commissioner Dorothy Solomon made a move indicating the whole idea was out of the commission's control when she rebutted, "You're not disagreeing with the commissioners; you are disagreeing with the county attorney."

Despite this discussion, which took place at the start of the Nov. 21 meeting, the commissioners took questions and answered them throughout the nearly four-hour meeting that followed.

Salmon Press
Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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