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Do county commissioners have to follow the same rules as employees?

March 21, 2013
OSSIPEE — State law allows for the public to inspect the records of any governmental agency during regular business hours. Under NH RSA 91-A:4, a section of the state's Right-To-Know law, "each public body or agency shall keep and maintain all governmental records in its custody at its regular office or place of business in an accessible place."

There has been much discussion at Carroll County Commissioners meetings about whether or not jail inspections, also required under the law, were ever completed in the past. Two former commissioners have said inspections were done. They also want to know what happened to the files that were in the desk they left behind when they left office.

Former County Commissioner Chip Albee attended the March 13 commissioner's meeting. He told that when he was in office "there was a file drawer on the right hand side of the desk that was full of all Marge Webster's (former county commissioner) and my jail information." He went on to describe a drawer that contained "all of the jail information, inspections, report from the person who did the 2009 jail study, reports from various engineers that studied the wall issue, my notes…I probably spent 40 days from time to time visiting the jail and various aspects of it. That was in there as well."

According to email communications with Webster, she also remembers the desk now occupied by Commissioner Asha Kenney as being full of county-related information including photos, notes, files, and meeting minutes.

In response to a right-to-know request in which we have asked to see all county-related documents in the desk, Kenney demanded to know who is falsely accusing her of removing items from that desk and taking them out of the building. Back in 2011 when she first took office, several sources including County Commissioner David Sorensen and former Commissioner Dorothy Solomon, and county employees confirmed that Kenney loaded up at least one box of stuff from the commissioner's office and left the building with it, despite their objection. No one was sure at the time exactly what was in the box. There has been no formal response to our right-to-know request to examine the contents, specifically anything jail-related that was in the desk when Kenney took office. Kenney sent an email March 14 stating, "I did not take any documents from the office. What is your proof?"

County policy

The finishing touches are being put on the county's non-union employee handbook. The book covers such topics as employee conduct, employee benefits, and general policies found in a typical personnel policy manual, including attendance, cell phone usage, harassment, workplace violence, electronic communications, and social media policy. County commissioners are charged with approving the policy but one commissioner says the rules the commissioners set for the employees don't have to be followed by the commissioners. "I don't know why we have an employee personnel handbook applying to commissioners. This is for employees. The commissioners are running the county. We have to supervise the employees and department heads. Why would the same apply to us? The same rules the employees are doing, I've never heard of that," said Kenney. "You cannot apply the same rules to the employees and the commissioners."

"You mean we're special?" asked Sorensen, "I think we have to set the example."

Sheriff Domenic Richardi agreed that the same policies that apply to his employees apply to him. "I would certainly hope so, to be honest. Again leading by example is key," he said.

"The simple answer is you lead from the top not the bottom, lead from the front not the back and it [the policy] should apply to the commissioners," said Commissioner David Babson.

Albee added, "The executive needs to live to a higher standard than the employee. The executive needs to set an example not equal to the employee's example but more intently to the purpose of working for the betterment of the county."

Kenney's personal website, www.ashakenney.com has been called into question by some and what kind of example she is setting for the employees. Others argue that it's her first amendment right to say whatever she wants about the county as well as its current and former employees on her website. The proposed social media policy is to establish written guidelines…to ensure employees use appropriate discretion on social networking sites. Such sites include, but are not limited to, Facebook and Twitter. The policy goes on to say employees must be cognizant of how their postings may be considered reflective of the county; employees are encouraged to honor privacy rights of current and former employees; and employees must realize they are legally liable for anything they write or present online.

At the March 13 Kenney hissed at this reporter and accused the policy question being just an attempt to get her website shut down. "Now you're back on a personal vendetta because for two years you writing trash and you know now the truth and facts are coming out," she said. "I want to thank the 900 people who are coming on my website and say that a lot of people should have a website, elected officials, and thank me for my [inaudible] services," said Kenney.

Ed Comeau of Brookfield argued the focus needs to be on the county business and these other discussions are distracting from that. "The delegation just voted in a budget of $27.8 million. This conversation is just irrelevant. You have to be responsible for what you write and what you say. You need a handbook for that? If you are going to put something in the paper or on the Internet you just have to be responsible and if you're not, you're going to be told you're not. You don't need a book. The voters of Carroll County would appreciate if we could move into the business. The personal stuff will take care of itself," said Comeau.

Towards the end of their meeting, commissioners decided to take another week to review the handbook before they agreed to accept it. This includes Babson's indication that the he is concerned with protecting individual's right to free speech while balancing that with protecting the interest of the county.

BEAS questions

"I would think a dissection of this line would be far more productive than arguing over how much bar and chain oil we use for the wood processor," said Albee. As the commissioners struggle to sell the plan to purchase a new $65,000 wood processor for the Farm to the county delegation, some think the delegation should be more heavily scrutinizing a budget line the commissioners have said is out of the commission's control.

In question is the $4,107,954 budget line county taxpayers pay to NH Bureau of Elderly and Adult Services. That line has increased $1.32 million dollars since 2010. According to former elected officials with knowledge about what that budget line is for, it is to offset amounts that Medicaid does not pay for healthcare of Carroll County residents. According to one source, if an adult is on Medicaid and is living in a nursing home or a rehabilitation facility or receiving home health care services, the county picks up the tab for whatever is owed after Medicaid has paid their portion.

How many residents are being paid for? Who decides the rate? Where are these patients living and what services are being provided? Is the County being charged an administrative fee for collecting this money from all of the counties and disbursing it? Carroll County used to have an employee that was assigned to all cases generated in the county and tracked where those patients were and how much money was being paid on their behalf. As part of a restructuring at the state level, it now appears the state's Bureau of Elderly and Adult Services handles all of this with the County just paying the bill.

Is the County being charged an administrative fee for the state handling this? If so, how much? The county commissioners have not been able to answer these questions but have referred all questions about this program to the Bureau itself or the county's three state representatives that currently serve on the NH House subcommittee for Department of Health and Human Services, Steve Schmidt (R-Wolfeboro), Susan Ticehurst (D-Tamworth), and Bill Nelson (R-Brookfield). Answers to the above questions as well as many others have been requested from the Bureau. Though we were told it might take some time to put together the information, we have been promised the information is forthcoming. We will continue to try to sort this out for our readers and get answers to these and other questions about the program.

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