February 06, 2014OSSIPEE — Once again, Carroll County taxpayers have had to pay for an investigation into employee claims against county commissioners. But, as in the past, it is unknown whether or not taxpayers will ever really know what they paid for.
This reporter filed a right-to-know request Jan. 22 asking the commissioners to release the findings of the investigation into claims against the county commissioners made by former jail captain Michael Fowler, who resigned last year.
The denial of the information request, dated Jan. 29 and signed by all three commissioners states that the records are exempt from disclosure because they pertain to personnel practices and if released would constitute an invasion of privacy. Fowler filed the claims after he resigned and it is unclear how the law protects the board of commissioners, who are elected officials and not employees.
This is the latest in a string of complaints that have been filed against the commissioners in recent years, beginning most notably with the claim of harassment filed by the former human resources director, Robin Reade against Commissioner Asha Kenney. The Reade complaint investigation report remains hidden from public view despite repeated requests for it to be released. The Reade investigation cost about $15,000 to investigate. According to released invoices obtained from the county business office, the Fowler investigation cost $15,711.04 but with a "discount per engagement letter" taxpayers are on the hook for $6,945 payable to two different law firms. The Fowler complaint did not hone in on one commissioner but rather took to task the entire board and workings of the business office.
Locks and keys
Commissioner Kenney asked for $5,000 to be added to this year's annual county budget to purchase a safe in which to store non-public meeting minutes. Commissioner David Sorensen told the county delegation Monday, Feb. 3 that he recently inspected an old safe that was used in the former county nursing home and it will suffice so the $5,000 was removed from the budget request.
In a very heated exchange, Sorensen and Commissioner David Babson sided against Kenney at their Jan. 29 meeting and voted that all three commissioners should have a key to the file cabinet where non-public meeting minutes are currently stored, to allow them access as necessary to the documents for research purposes. Babson said Kenney usually arrives at 8:29 a.m. for the weekly commissioners meeting that has a 8:30 a.m. start time and leaves promptly after the meeting. There have been times he said when he and Sorensen wanted to go back and look at previous meeting minutes but Kenney wasn't around and is the only one with a key. Kenney objected to the idea of her fellow commissioners having access to the minutes, saying they will all just disappear, it isn't right and that she is going to "check into that." "I am going to get some counsel and call the state office. This is pure nonsense. You guys are breaking the law," said Kenney. Sorensen responded, "We should be able to look at them anytime we want. Period."
Karen Umberger, chair of the county delegation, voiced her opinion Feb. 3 about the storage of non-public minutes, calling on the commissioners to release each set of minutes to the public as soon as possible to avoid the need to worry about where to store them.
Jail escape report
The full 15-member county delegation was sent a copy of the recently released jail investigation report. The report, completed two years ago, examined a Dec. 2011 inmate escape. The commissioners were asked at the Feb. 3 delegation meeting how much that report cost. Sorensen and Babson took a guess while Kenney said nothing. A call to the business office Feb. 4 revealed $3,650 was paid for the report that basically concluded that the commissioners and delegation should listen to the jail superintendent and support his staffing and facility improvement requests.
Over the past two years, in response to the report, the delegation has approved upgrades to the jail security camera system, approved the hiring of additional staff, and made repairs to the recreation yard fence.
There was some discussion at the Feb. 3 delegation meeting about the finally released report. Umberger asked Carroll County Department of Corrections Jason Johnson if he was 99 percent sure that all of the security issues highlighted in the report have been addressed. If so, she said, there was no more reason to discuss the reports or the events of that day in December 2011. "Probably no one is ever happy with security. The question I have is – are we currently satisfied with the actions that have been taken to prevent escapes," asked Umberger. Johnson said the issues have been dealt with, if the delegation approves the two additional staff he is asking for this year.
Rep. Steve Schmidt heads the delegation jail subcommittee and said concerns were raised at their meeting about whether the jail is being underutilized. That subcommittee suggested the jail staff come back with an explanation of the opportunities for increasing the jail population. The county jail, built to house 140 inmates averages about 50 inmates a day.
Schmidt suggested that options be explored for bringing in revenue such as housing federal inmates or female inmates that other facilities don't have room for. He said, failing those options, the possibility of shutting down a "pod or two" and reducing the number of jail employees should also be looked at.
Rep. Chris Ahlgren said the possibility of housing federal inmates had been suggested to the commissioners in the past but "they have shown no appetite for that" and the only alternative might be to cut the jail budget to force the commissioners to look at alternatives and ways to cut the cost of running the county jail. "Perhaps we could consider a performance audit to study a solution that we are not able to see," said Ahlgren. He further suggested that legislation changes might be necessary to eliminate people being sent to jail for minor drug-related offenses such as the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Rep. Donald Wright even asked if the commissioners had ever considered outsourcing the entire Carroll County inmate population and closing the facility altogether.
The county delegation voted to award the performance audit contract to Matrix Consulting Group, a national company based in Waltham, Mass. Matrix was one of four bidders whose proposal went through the subcommittee scoring system. They were the lowest but most qualified bidder. Once the contract is signed and if the delegation decides in their final budget to add $7,000, the 12-week audit period will commence at a cost of $27,000. The firm is set to do a comprehensive evaluation of the operating procedures of the Carroll County Commissioner's Office and Administration, resulting in a final report and plans for implementing improvements.
After lengthy discussion and debate, the county delegation voted Feb. 3 to fund up to $2,000 for the legal defense for the board of commissioners, who are being sued as a county board and individually for alleged violation of the NH Right-to-Know law. In being sued as a board, the county taxpayers are going to pay for defending the County, because in a twist learned at the delegation meeting, the County's liability insurer Primex does not cover legal fees in Right-to-Know cases.
This came as an apparent surprise to the 20 or so elected officials in the room. Kenney said she already consulted her own attorney to handle the additional fact the board members are being sued individually as well.
"I find it hard to believe that these three people are deliberately flaunting the law. I don't get that. I would be in favor of indemnifying these people for any cost they have. Morally it is the right thing to do. At best this is an oversight on a RSA that is difficult to determine at best," said Schmidt, speaking in favor of the County footing the bill for the commissioners' defense.
Rep. Ed Butler made the motion that later passed that the County will contribute a total amount if commissioners are willing to use one lawyer. He will, however, be investigating to find out why Primex will not cover these types of lawsuits, if other insurers do, and whether legislation changes might be needed to address this. Kenney said she already talk to her lawyer so it is unclear whether she will want in on the deal with Babson and Sorensen.
The vote passed 10-2, with Rep. Mark McConkey and Wright voting no, Rep. Harry Merrow and Rep. Gene Chandler having already left the meeting, and Rep. Tom Buco was absent from the meeting.
The next county delegation meeting is set for Feb 17 at 9 a.m. at the Carroll County Administration building in Ossipee where they will continue work on the 2014 budget.