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LGC advises fire chief can speak to architects

October 28, 2009
TILTON — Fire Chief Stephen Carrier will be meeting with architects for the Life Safety Building Committee project this week, after an attorney advised the fire commissioners that they could not legally prevent him from speaking with them.

A disagreement arose last week when the Life Safety Building Committee of Tilton asked Tilton-Northfield Fire District commissioners to allow Carrier and Deputy Chief Michael Robinson to speak with architects for a conceptual design. The architects needed to determine what requirements department would have should they join in such a complex with the Tilton Police Department. Information such as equipment storage, space needs for staff and administration, and communications requirements were being sought by the firm.

Commissioner Kevin Waldron spoke out against any discussions between the chief and the firm of Goudreau & Associates, saying it was a "waste of time" since the district has not agreed to the joint venture. Both he and Commissioner Paul Auger voted against the discussions, while Commissioner Tom Gallant was in favor of the meeting.

On the advice of Katherine Dawson, chairman of the Tilton selectmen, Waldron consulted with an attorney at the Legal Government Center on his ability to bar the chief from speaking with the architects.

Last week, word came back from the LGC attorney that the commissioners could not legally stop any discussions between the chief and representatives of the architectural firm.

New Hampshire RSA 98-E:1 cites, "Not withstanding any rule or order to the contrary, a person employed as a public employee in any capacity shall have the right to publicly discuss and give opinions on all matters concerning any government entity and its policies."

The statute continues in 98-E:3 by saying, "No person shall interfere in any way with the right of freedom of speech, full criticism or disclosure by any public employee."

Confidentialities and privileged records are the exception to this ruling but public matters may be discussed. Interference with this freedom of speech allows a public employee the right to seek injunctive relief or civil action in court.

Counselor David R. Connell, in a letter to both Waldron and Tilton Town Administrator Joyce Fulweiler, did clarify that previous law allowed a governing body to restrict what employees could discuss. RSA 98-E now clarifies that the chief may speak about operational needs of the fire district and his department. He is further permitted to offer his opinions on anything concerning the TNFD so long as he makes it clear what is his opinion and what is fact.

LSBC members said that an interview between Goudreau & Associates and Carrier was scheduled for this week. The firm hoped to wrap up the first phase of their timeline with this interview, as they now begin narrowing down site selection for the conceptual design.

Matin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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