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Residents push for more openness in town government


October 21, 2009
ALTON — Voicing concerns about what they saw as the deliberate exclusion of voters from town affairs, several residents encouraged the board of selectmen Monday night to allow more public involvement in their decision-making.

Re-iterating concerns she raised during the board's Sept. 30 meeting about business being conducted out of the public's sight, resident Ruth Messier asked during the first of Monday evening's two public input sessions when the board last reviewed its backlog of non-public meeting minutes or voted to unseal them.

Given the potential for a change in the makeup of the board after any town election, Messier also asked whether former board members were still expected to keep information they were given in non-public sessions confidential.

It would not be fair, she said, for some private citizens to be able to openly discuss privileged information that the rest of the town had no access to.

Selectmen Steve McMahon and Pat Fuller replied that former board members are expected to uphold the confidentiality of material discussed behind closed doors.

Suggesting that the board consider setting a policy under which they would regularly review and, if appropriate, release sealed minutes, Messier shifted her focus to Ryan Heath's recent promotion to the position of chief of police.

Commenting that former chief Phil Smith was making roughly $80,000 a year based on his previous experience, and that she hoped the younger Heath would be making less than that, Messier asked whether the board had agreed upon his salary prior to its decision to promote him.

Explaining that Heath's salary was not discussed ahead of time, and was, in fact, not set until two or three weeks after his promotion, Fuller announced that he will enter the police chief's step-and-track schedule at a Step 3, and will be paid just over $76,000 a year.

Resident Peter Keen asked the board to clarify exactly where Heath was situated on the step-and-track schedule.

McMahon replied that the scale goes up to Step 10, meaning that Heath "isn't even at the halfway point yet."

Confirming with Town Administrator Russell Bailey that written policies are on file for all town departments, Keen asked whether the town had a policy for record retention.

Bailey replied that a committee is currently at work on a draft record retention policy.

For the time being, he said, the town follows state guidelines for the retention of records, which vary according to the type of document an individual might be searching for.

Asked by Keen who handles the hiring of police officers, McMahon replied "We do," adding that prospective officers are usually interviewed by the chief and vetted by a panel of department personnel, which sends its final recommendation to the board.

Keen asked whether townspeople were allowed to offer input into the hiring process.

Fuller replied that it would be up to the chief to decide whether or not to allow public participation.

Suggesting that residents be allowed to sit on the hiring panel in the future, Keen questioned why the selectmen seemed reluctant to offer direction to the chief.

"Doesn't [the chief] work for you?" he asked.

Selectman Peter Bolster explained that the provisions of RSA 105 prohibit town officials from interfering with departmental operations.

"We don't want to politicize the police department," he said.

With Keen continuing to question why the selectmen seemed, to him, reluctant to exercise any authority over the police department, Bailey interrupted the discussion, stating that the hiring process is a personnel matter, and suggesting that Keen should have submitted his questions to the board in writing so that they could be passed on to the police chief.

With Keen arguing that he was a member of the public offering input to the board, Bailey replied that the intent of public input sessions is not to provide a forum where residents can barrage the selectmen with questions they are not prepared to answer.

Asked by Keen whether he was aware of any surrounding towns allowing private citizens to participate in the hiring of police officers, Bailey said he did not know of any cases where that had occurred.

Possible Warrant articles discussed

Informing the board that the 2010 town budget books were recently sent to the budget committee, and that he was preparing to begin drafting the 2010 town Warrant, Bailey suggested several possible Warrant articles for the board's consideration, including the sale of town-owned property as a way of bringing in revenue; improvements to town buildings; and the closure of several empty capital reserve funds.

Selectman Dave Hussey favored the idea of selling off several parcels of town-owned land, commenting that he felt it was time for the board to start thinking outside the box and looking at ways to increase revenue other than raising property taxes.

With Hussey and other board members asking to see a list of the properties up for discussion, Bailey agreed to compile a list in time for the board's next meeting.

Tax rate set

McMahon announced at the start of Monday night's meeting that the town's tax rate was recently set at $11.83 per $1,000 of valuation.

That figure, he said, is up roughly 50 cents from last year due to increase in the county and state school portions.

Odds and ends

In other business, the board tentatively agreed to endorse the Lakes Region and Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commissions' joint Route 28 safety study, pending further review of the final report; accepted a donation of a storage shed at Jones Field for use by the Alton Youth League baseball program; approved the installation of a "Children at Play" sign on Eliot Road; accepted a $1,084.50 matching grant toward the purchase of a laser radar unit for the police department; and heard from Bailey that the town recently received the state's $6,264 share of the expenses from the December 2008 ice storm.

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

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