January 02, 2014OSSIPEE — Transparency and good business practices in place are two areas in which the Carroll County Commissioners fell short this year as they struggled to appease the public and comply with the law.
Ed Comeau of GovernmentOversite.com continued to shine the camera light on practically every action taken or word spoken by the Commissioner and by Carroll County Delegation, recording nearly every weekly, monthly and subcommittee meeting either of the boards held. And he spent nearly the entire year embroiled in a legal wrangle with the commissioners, attempting to get public information to the public. In May, when a list of requested public documents had not been produced, Comeau, in conjunction with this reporter, filed a right-to-know complaint in Carroll County Superior Court. The matter would be settled without having its day in court but the suit did prompt commissioners to adopt a policy for how right-to-know requests would be handled in the future.
Comeau came at the commissioners again, with the help of his attorney Seth Hipple from the Concord-based law firm Martin and Hipple, PLLC and the second round wouldn't be so easily settled. Comeau asked for the past five years' worth of commissioner's non-public meeting minutes. That board would then go on to spend two months attempting to fulfill that request. First they had to make a list of all the times they and previous boards had gone into non-public sessions during the five years. Then had to figure out if minutes were taken, where they were located, if they had been sealed properly to remain closed to public view, and if it was okay to release them publicly now.
As it turned out, when all the work was done, 86 sets of non-public meeting minutes remained non-existent. In fairness, the bulk of the issue stemmed from years during which current commissioners David Babson and Asha Kenney were not yet in office. The third commissioner, David Sorensen, has been a commissioner throughout, however.
For two-thirds of 2013, the nicest word many could muster about the untimely and unlawful creation and storing of public meeting minutes at the County complex was "mess." Kenney, the appointed commission clerk, was blamed for the commission cycling through five different recording secretaries in two years, for not having the meeting minutes prepared in the timeframe required by law, and for, on many occasions misplacing the ones that had been done.
There was disagreement about whether or not non-public meetings should be audiotaped. When it was voted the board would no longer do this, Sorensen and Babson accused Kenney of covertly audiotaping a July meeting anyway. A complaint was filed with Carroll County Sheriff's Department about the potential that Kenney secretly audiotaping was, in fact, not only unethical but perhaps illegal. Because of conflict of interest, the matter was turned over to Strafford County Attorney's Office where, as of press time, it is still under investigation.
After sitting on the other side of the table the visitors section for many years, Babson threw his hat in the ring and was elected in Nov. 2012 to a county commissioner's seat and took office in January, replacing Dorothy Solomon. He started the year right off with lists of to-do items and pushed for his fellow commissioners to release the findings of past grievances filed against the commissioners. They pushed back and continued to hide behind the veil of "legal advice," refusing to release the reports, and in the public's eye, doing so to protect themselves.
Commissioners and the delegation toyed with the idea of whether or not now is the time to hire a county administrator to oversee complex-wide operations, and if the job has just become too much for the three-member commission. Kenney has long supported the idea while Sorensen and Babson had reservations. Back in January Sorensen said having a county administrator does little more than add a layer of bureaucracy. Babson said having a county administrator takes control from the commissioners and the delegation and "politicizes the whole operation". "Until I see some gross mistakes made in the County, I would oppose it," Babson said.
What constitutes a "gross mistake" remains up to interpretation but that definition would go on to be tested throughout the year. Most notably, in March when it was announced that the former administrative assistant in the County business office was indicted for taking over $10,770.80 in County funds, seemingly unnoticed, during the course of a year. Through the course of the months that followed the commission admitted publicly that the County bank statements weren't being balanced monthly and there were no written financial policies in place.
These among other items prompted the county delegation to add $20,000 to have an independent auditing firm take on a performance audit of county business functions. At least three bids, with a fourth anticipated, had come in at the December delegation meeting. The project is expected to be awarded in January with the auditing work to commence in 2014. The former county employee, Lory LaRochelle, would go on to plead guilty as part of a plea agreement that included no jail time and that she pay back the money.
By mid-2013, the county had hired its third human resources director in two years, Wynette DeGroot. Her predecessor, Janice Sullivan, didn't leave quietly however, filing a complaint of harassment against a county employee and negotiating a secret agreement with commissioners that would keep her on the payroll for two months after her departure to the tune of $15,711.29. To this date, again under the veil of "legal advice" the commissioners refuse to release any details about her alleged complaint.
It also remains a mystery why only two of the commissioners, Sorensen and Babson, signed the agreement with Sullivan but Kenney did not.
Commissioners here made some strides towards embracing technology, voting to approve the $38,000 system that will convert recordkeeping at the county nursing home to electronic records and data processing, freeing up staff time and storage space. Thanks to Babson pushing for its installation, the meeting room on the second floor of the county administration building is now equipped with a public wireless internet connection. And, despite some resistance from at least one staff member and Sorensen, Babson also won his motion to have money added to the 2014 county budget for implementation of an electronic recordkeeping system for the county business office and vault as well. Kenney has been supportive of electronic file storage throughout her term.
Except when it comes to the keeping of some records that is. Kenney has claimed on at least two occasions that "someone" has attempted to break into her file cabinet and now, in her final year of her four-year elected term, she is asking for a $5,000 safe to be added to the 2014 budget. Babson went so far as to ask NH Rep. Tom Buco (D-Conway) to change the 1880s law that requires a commission clerk to have a safe in the hope that a more cost-effective file proof filing cabinet will suffice. The nursing home, now with its implementation of electronic file storage, has also indicted they are freeing up some document storage cabinets that might be used and can save the county the $5,000.
To bid or not to bid? That question continued to leave some scratching their heads in 2013, with the commissioner continuing to make the choice on a case by case basis, despite a county bid policy now in place. After several attempts at gaining funding for a new $45,000 wood processing machine, commissioners finally convinced the delegation to spend the money and the machine for the County Farm was reportedly ordered the same day. When the jail superintendent wanted to use money in the budget to upgrade the security camera system his facility, commissioners voted 3-0 to let him go ahead without going through the formal bid process. When it came time to take the recommendation of the nursing home committee about buying electronic software, they were sent back to gather more bids.
It will be interesting to watch commissioners as they move through the proposed projects in 2014 to see when the rules apply and to whom and when they do not.
In other county news, Sheriff Domenic Richardi was sworn into that office in January, after several attempts to get elected to the job. And during the year, several new deputies came on board, including his second-in-command Richard Young.
Throughout at least half of the year, Richardi would find himself working with a delegation subcommittee appointed to determine if the current method of county taxation is fair. At the crux of their claim of inequity, with representatives from Moultonborough leading the charge, is that if some towns – Moultonborough, Conway, and Wolfeboro have their own emergency dispatching centers, why should they have to pay for the county dispatch center as well. The committee has come to no final recommendation to the full delegation, though that is expected in 2014.
Many wonder if towns start paying for county services based on a fee-for-service method, how far will it go? Will towns also start paying only for a portion of the jail based on how many inmates they send there every year? How about nursing home admissions?
Since the new county nursing home opened for business, the old home has continued to stand in its shadow, with two sides warring over whether it should be torn down. Currently the pellet heating system and laundry facilities to support the new home are located in the old one. The delegation gave a citizens group 18 months to make progress on their idea to convert the old county nursing home into a veteran's homeless shelter.
UNH Cooperative Extension remains interested in moving to the county complex. At last word, the commissioners were trying to do the math that could convince the delegation to approve the Extension moving to the old home, with renovations being paid for with a bond. Currently, the county pays $45,000 per year for the Extension to lease office space in Conway.
Throughout the year, the new nursing home continued to maintain a full census of 103 residents, with a waiting list of potential new admissions. The jail, on the other hand, has maintained a capacity of about one-third.