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Selectmen's raise causes a stir in Alton

Residents also question circumstances of Heath's promotion; Bolster removed from vice chair's position

NEWLY SWORN-IN Police Chief Ryan Heath receives his chiefís bars from his wife and oldest son during the Sept. 30 meeting of Altonís Board of Selectmen. Brendan Berube. (click for larger version)
October 06, 2009
ALTON — A decision by Alton's Board of Selectmen earlier this year to give themselves and other elected officials a three percent raise drew fire from concerned residents during what had already become a contentious meeting on Sept. 30.

Budget committee member Steve Miller approached the board during the first of the evening's two public input sessions to voice his personal concerns over its decision in late April to award a three percent cost of living allowance (COLA) to its own members, as well as several other elected officials, including the town treasurer.

"What you did was vote yourselves a raise the taxpayers didn't want you to have," Miller said, questioning why (as he understood it) the 4-1 vote had been taken during a work session where neither the public nor the press was in attendance.

Admonishing the board for ignoring the spirit of the default budget passed by voters in March, and for violating Articles II, III, and IX of the town's conflict-of-interest ordinance, which they themselves instructed all town boards and committees to adhere to after a dispute over comments made by planning board members this past summer, Miller said that although he took no issue with the board awarding a raise to other town officials, he was concerned by their decision to award themselves a salary increase with no oversight by voters.

"The President of the United States can't vote himself a raise," he said. "The CEO of a corporation can't vote himself a raise; they have to go through a board of directors Ö so what gives you the right to vote yourselves a raise?"

"If you can vote yourselves a $100 raise, you can vote for a $100,000 raise," he added, demanding that the board immediately rescind its earlier decision, and turn back the money he claimed had been collected in violation of the principles of a default budget.

Selectman Pat Fuller explained during a telephone interview Monday that while the board did, in fact, discuss giving themselves and other elected officials a three percent COLA during a work session in April, the final vote was taken during a public meeting the following week that aired on LRPA-TV's Channel 26.

According to Fuller, the board (with the exception of Selectman Loring Carr, who cast the dissenting vote and refused to accept a raise of any kind) felt that in the interest of fairness, elected officials should receive the same COLA awarded to hourly employees (which was incorporated into the default budget).

"We have the authority [under state law] to do that," and to award ourselves a COLA, she said, adding that members of the board of selectmen have received whatever COLA was given to town employees every year since she first joined the board.

While the COLAs for elected officials were made retroactive to Jan. 1, she said, the selectmen's COLAs became effective the night the final vote was taken.

Promotion process questioned

The official swearing-in of Ryan Heath as Alton's new Chief of Police at the start of last week's meeting prompted several residents to question the process through which the board decided to promote him.

Ruth Messier said she had read the minutes from the Sept. 8 meeting at which the decision was made and had watched a videotape of the meeting twice, and was concerned by the fact that the board approved that evening's agenda with no amendments, only to read former chief Phil Smith's letter of retirement into the record after resident Barbara Howard mentioned rumors she had heard about Smith's retirement.

"Why wasn't [the letter] on the agenda?" she asked, commenting that it seemed to her as though "much is being discussed outside the public's sight."

"I really resent not having that knowledge before the people," she added, continuing to question why the letter was not added to the agenda when it was clear to her, after watching the tape, that all five board members had it in their possession before the meeting started.

Carr explained that Chairman Steve McMahon was the only board member who had a copy of the letter at the start of the Sept. 8 meeting.

After glancing over and seeing the letter, Carr said he suggested to McMahon that it be read into the record later that evening.

Stating her disagreement with the decision to appoint Heath without first conducting a full-scale search for someone to replace Smith, Messier asked whether the board had entered into a contract with Smith.

McMahon said no contract was ever offered to Smith, adding that Smith was paid on the same step-and-track salary schedule used for all town employees.

Asked by Messier whether the board was considering drawing up a contract for Heath, McMahon said they were not.

"I certainly hope not," Messier replied.

Resident Bob Longabaugh followed Miller to the microphone to "castigate" the four board members who voted in favor of Heath's promotion for making what he saw as a needlessly rushed decision.

Given the commendable job Heath did running the department without the official title of chief after the firing of former chief Kevin Iwans for misconduct in late 2006, Longabaugh said, the board could once again have placed Heath in command as an interim chief and taken the occasion of Smith's retirement as an opportunity to conduct a "ground-up reassessment" of the entire police department.

The process of choosing Smith's replacement, he said, could have been handled a number of different ways, from appointing a panel of citizens to search for applicants and make the best choice to creating a police commission, similar to Wolfeboro's, that would handle the hiring and firing of police personnel.

Any of the options he presented, he said, would have enabled the townspeople to feel more at ease about the transparency of the process.

Bolster ousted from vice chair's position

Recent comments made by Selectman Peter Bolster concerning Heath's promotion led an infuriated Carr to publicly scold him last week for speaking out on several issues recently without the board's authorization.

Voicing his concerns about what he saw as Bolster's recklessness during the board members' bi-weekly committee reports, Carr said he found it "disturbing" to hear what Bolster said to a pair of local residents who attended a recent selectmen's workshop and confronted the board with Bolster's comments about why Heath was not promoted when his name first came up for consideration.

"Evidently, you said he was discriminated against because of his whistle blowing, his age, etc., etc.," Carr said. "I thought that was astonishing."

Carr cited Bolster's comments about Heath as the third such incident in recent months — the first occurring after the Easter Sunday fire at the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center, when Bolster upset his fellow board members and Town Attorney James Sessler by making unauthorized comments to the local press about how town officials planned to handle the re-building process.

The second incident, Carr said, occurred recently, when Bolster was overheard on the front steps of Town Hall providing residents with potentially privileged information about the Miramichie Hill cell tower case.

"In good conscience, I can't allow this to continue on Ö it's getting to be too much," Carr said, moving that the board remove Bolster from the position of vice chair and transfer that title to Fuller (who was not present at last week's meeting).

Objecting to Carr's accusations, which he said left him feeling blind-sided, Bolster said he hadn't discussed anything in any of the incidents mentioned by Carr that wasn't already common knowledge.

Addressing the comments he made concerning Heath's promotion, Bolster said he had since spoken with Heath, and fully supported the board's decision.

What he said to the two gentlemen who attended the work session, he explained, was that at the time Heath first came up as a candidate, he felt that Heath hadn't had enough experience to serve as an effective chief.

The rest of his comments that evening, he said, centered around the position of chief of police itself, and his personal belief that a chief should maintain a certain distance from the community in order to be fair and even-handed in the performance of his duties.

"I really didn't do anything that was amiss," he said.

Carr maintained his position that Bolster should be removed from the vice chairmanship, re-iterating that he was "shocked" to hear what Bolster had said about Heath, and remembered Sessler scolding Bolster for his comments about the Conference Center fire during a work session held the Wednesday after the fire.

"We need these things stopped," Selectman Dave Hussey said in agreement, adding that he felt the board could not afford to have a "loose cannon" out in the community discussing information that has not been released to the general public.

Stating that did not want the vice chairmanship if his fellow board members no longer trusted him with it, Bolster voted in favor of Carr's motion, along with Carr and Hussey.

McMahon abstained.

Keeping taxes level

Informing the board that he was preparing to set the town's 2010 tax rate, Town Administrator Russell Bailey asked for authorization to keep the overlay for potential refunds and abatements level-funded at $100,000.

Bailey also asked the board for its input on a proposal to withdraw $144,000 from the town's fund balance (which currently holds roughly $2,676,000) in order to keep the town portion of the tax rate level-funded next year.

McMahon favored the idea, commenting that "it's been a tough year all around," and that he would like to see townspeople given a break.

Commenting that he had spoken with officials from surrounding towns who were "shocked" by the size of Alton's fund balance, Bolster asked whether there would be any down side to using a portion of it to off-set the tax rate.

The only potential down side, Bailey said, is the fact that the 2010 town Warrant hasn't been finalized, meaning that the board won't know for another few months what, if any, capital expenditures will go before voters.

Stressing that a withdrawal from the fund balance would affect only the town's portion of the tax rate, Bailey said he recently learned that the county portion will be going up.

The school district's portion, he said, is still up in the air.

Estimating that the fund balance will make $51,000 in interest next year, reducing the net loss from a withdrawal to roughly $90,000, Carr spoke in favor of the proposal, stating that he would personally like to see the tax rate level-funded.

Bolster said he would prefer to see the fund balance used to off-set the cost of any major capital expenditures.

Hussey suggested that it might also be time for the board to "take a good look" at the possibility of auctioning off town-owned land.

On a pair of motions from Carr, the board authorized Bailey to make the $144,000 withdrawal from the fund balance and set the overlay at $100,000.

Odds and ends

In other business, the board authorized Bailey to send out bid specifications for roof repairs at the East Alton Fire Station, and awarded a bid in the amount of $3,358 to M&L Maintenance for the painting of trim at the Alton Bay Fire Station.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
Martin Lord Osman
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