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Where have all the night owls gone?

County Commission says no more regular night meetings

April 08, 2010
OSSIPEE — The Carroll County Commission will no longer hold regularly scheduled night meetings because they haven't generated any interest from the public.

Historically, the county commission meets Wednesday morning at 8:15 a.m. But the commissioners said that they heard complaints that most people have to work on weekday mornings, so commissioners began scheduling the third meeting of the month at 7 p.m. in order to be more accessible.

"We've had three or four of them and we haven't had good attendance," said Commission Chair David Sorensen. "At the last one, we had no attendance."

During morning meetings four members of the public normally attend: former state representative David Babson of Ossipee; Henry and Maureen Spencer, of Effingham; and reporters from the Carroll County Independent and Conway Daily Sun. Fewer or no members of the public have been going to the night meetings, said commissioners.

Last week, commissioners said they wouldn't continue with regularly scheduled night meetings because of lack of public attendance and also because staff members who attend the night meetings have to reduce their hours during the workday. However, that doesn't mean they will never hold night meetings again.

Sorensen said any meetings of great interest to the general public could be scheduled at night.

Then Commissioner Chip Albee expanded Sorensen's suggestion by saying that people who wish to bring an issue to the commission should be able to request a night meeting if they cannot attend a morning meeting.

Babson congratulated the commission for experimenting with night meetings, but said it was clear that it wasn't working. He just asked the commission to stay flexible with the schedule case a night meeting is needed at some point.

"I'd go back to the morning meetings," said Babson. "You made an attempt… I think it's sad that the public after complaining they can't come in because they have to work in the morning don't come in when the meetings are at 7 p.m."

Commissioners have been meeting on Wednesdays because the Carroll County Delegation meets on Monday mornings and because historically commission members have also sat on municipal boards that meet Mondays and Tuesdays, said Albee.

Nonpublic minutes released

At their meeting on March 31, commission received praise and some criticism from Babson and the Spencers regarding the release of several sets of redacted nonpublic minutes at the meeting the week before.

"We compliment you for the fact that you're trying to do the right thing," said Maureen Spencer.

The Babson and the Spencers lauded the commissioners for releasing the information but argued many of the discussions contained in the minutes didn't seem to belong in nonpublic session. For example, one entry in the Sept. 9 meeting minutes was about insulation at the new nursing home that the commissioners are building, said Babson adding state law has narrow definitions of what is nonpublic.

"My suggestion is to do some serious thinking about what you're going to discuss before you go into nonpublic session," said Babson.

But Babson said he was pleased that the county commissioners have decided to make as much of their minutes public as possible. Previous groups of County Commissioners have not done that in the past, said Babson who has been following county politics for over 10 years.

Babson also cited an entry in the July 15 minutes about the county's purchasing procedures as another example of a discussion that should have taken place in public.

Albee said part of the conversation about purchasing included information about some employees' job performance, which is legitimately nonpublic. However, he admitted some of the discussions in nonpublic session actually did belong in public session and the commissioners are making an effort to stop having those types of conversations behind closed doors.

"It becomes conversational from time to time," said Albee. "The information you see there in the minutes is when it delves into the conversational."

Henry Spencer and Babson, who have both served on government bodies, agreed that it would be easy for officials to slip into casual conversations in nonpublic session. However, Henry Spencer agreed with Babson that the commissioners need to reference which provision of the New Hampshire Right to Know law they are using to justify going into nonpublic as that will keep them focused on the topic at hand.

Babson was particularly concerned because hardly any of the material in the nonpublic meeting minutes belonged behind closed doors.

But Albee explained that the released minutes were redacted and didn't contain information that was still nonpublic. In the future, the any released nonpublic minutes could state that they have been edited for public consumption, said Albee.

Nonpublic sessions are normally conducted after the public portions of the meeting are over. Albee said when a nonpublic discussion drifts off topic there's little point in coming back into public session because any interested parties will have already left.

But Maureen Spencer said she'd be willing to wait for commissioners to come back into public session to see if they've done anything that they can share because is interested in what's going on with county government.

According to the New Hampshire Attorney General's Office, there are nine reasons a governmental body can use to go into nonpublic session. Minutes of nonpublic meetings must be disclosed within 72 hours unless two-thirds of the members of the board determine doing so would adversely affect the reputation of someone other than a member of the body or agency itself, would render the proposed action ineffective, or pertain to terrorism.

More information can be found on the Attorney General's Web site under a section called quick links. The Web site is doj.nh.gov/index.html. The nine reasons are:

— The promotion, dismissal, or discipline of a public employee, unless that employee requests a public meeting.

— The hiring of a public employee.

— Matters if discussed in public would adversely affect the reputation of a person other than a member of the body or agency itself, unless the person requests a public meeting.

— Consideration of acquisition, sale, or lease of real or personal property if discussed in public would likely benefit a party whose interests run counter to the general community.

— Consideration or negotiation of pending claims or litigation that have been threatened in writing.

— Consideration of applications by the Adult Parole Board.

— Consideration of security related issues bearing on the immediate safety of personnel or inmates at county correctional facilities.

— Considerations of applications by the Business Finance Authority that would cause harm to the applicant if done in public.

— Matters related to carrying out emergency functions intended to thwart a deliberate act that's intended to cause widespread or severe damage and loss of life.

Martin Lord Osman
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