Police chief hiring process challenged in court
September 23, 2009
MOULTONBORO — The process used to hire the town's new police chief is being challenged in court under the Right to Know Law.
On Thursday, Thomas Dawson was sworn in as Moultonboro's new chief after a nationwide search conducted by a hiring committee.
In February, Police Chief Scott Kinmond announced his run for the position of Road Agent and intention to retire from the police department if he won. Kinmond won the election in March and announced his retirement effective in September. A hiring committee consisting of Belknap County Sheriff Craig Wiggin, Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard, Auburn Police Chief Ed Piccard, Moultonboro resident Peter Welley, and Peterborough Town Administrator Pat Brenne conducted an extensive search, review, and interview process to fill Kinmond's postion.
The process to choose the committee and actions taken by the committee are being challenged in court by a Moultonboro resident as possible violations of the Right to Know Law.
A Petition for Right to Know was filed in Carroll County Superior Court in Ossipee on Aug. 27 by resident Paul Punturieri. The five members of the Moultonboro Board of Selectmen and Town Administrator Carter Terenzini were named in the petition.
According to the complaint, the members of the board met in non-public session on an unannounced date to discuss, plan and coordinate the process it would use to hire a new police chief. The petition claims that this was in violation of New Hampshire's Right to Know Law, or RSA 91-A, and all discussion of how the police chief was going to be replaced, the formation of the search committee, and who would be on that committee should have taken place in public session.
The petition said that Punturieri does not dispute that candidate interviews and examination of personnel documents should have been held in non-public session, but the fact that the committee appointment and discussion of membership was not held in public session is a violation of 91-A.
Town Administrator Carter Terenzini wrote in an email to Punturieri, cited in the petition, that the hiring process and the process to administer it were held in nonpublic in accordance with 91-A. The petition, however, stated that the town hired its first town planner and town engineer after discussions held in public session, including choosing the screening committees and posting meeting notices during the process. According to the petition, the Plaintiff expected the same procedure to be followed for the police chief.
"The Plaintiff believes that a Department head such as a Police Chief should be subject to even greater public scrutiny due to the very nature and critical importance of his role to 'serve and protect' Moultonboro's citizens."
Terenzini sent a letter to Punturieri dated Aug. 12, in response to a letter Punturieri, sent on Aug. 5, that the Board's actions had not been in violation of 91-A. The letter was cited in the petition and included with the case paperwork. Terenzini responded to Punturieri's letter by making reference to the RSA regarding the hiring of an employee in nonpublic session except for "…when they intend to discuss an applicant."
"It was the belief of the SelectBoard that the competitive process being used by the town was exempt under RSA 91-A: 5 IV," Terenzini wrote, citing the section related to internal personnel practices and the discussion of various confidential files and pieces of information.
In the petition, Punturieri stated that this section did not include hiring practices and did believe that "'Records pertaining to internal personnel practices' does not constitute an exemption to allow a body to meet in nonpublic session as specified…"
Terenzini also told the committee in the letter that the group is considered to be subject to RSA 91-A, and meetings had to be posted while discussions could be held in nonpublic. The file also included the minutes of the committee's July 27 meeting. The petition further stated that the minutes "do not indicate that (the) meeting was opened in public session and no motions were noted in the minutes to go into nonpublic session."
The petition also said that the plaintiff could not find a posting of the committee meetings in Town Hall or the Post Office where Terenzini allegedly said the meetings would be posted.
In the Aug. 12 letter, Terenzini wrote that the meetings were posted "in two places as required by statute with proper advance notice. Its meetings were public except for the portion of the second meeting in which they interviewed candidates under RSA 91-A: 3 II (b)."
"The existence of the panel and the names of those serving were announced in public, its meetings were posted in accordance with the statute and minutes were kept," Terenzini wrote in the letter. "In short there is no violation of RSA 91-A and it is not the intent of the Chair to seek any Board action to restart the Police Chief recruitment process."
The petition calls for relief "that the Court issue an immediate order to the Moultonboro Board of Selectmen whereby all illegal actions taken to date to hire a Police Chief are negated," the court orders the board to conduct all business of the process to hire a new chief in public session, and that the court award the plaintiff all costs incurred to file and pursue the action from the town and/or responsible individuals.
A hearing has been scheduled at Carroll County Superior Court on Oct. 2.
Terenzini said he did receive the petition and could not comment on matters pertaining to litigation.