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Tworth selectmen pinch road agent for conflict of interest

Board refuses to pay gravel bill to road agent's co.

April 08, 2010
TAMWORTH — The selectmen's chairman has taken the road agent to task because he billed the town for gravel from his own company without going to bid.

During last week's selectmen's meeting, Chairman John Roberts said he would refuse to let the town pay a $1,493 crushed gravel bill from Road Agent Bruce Robinson's company, Bruce Robinson Co., of Tamworth. Roberts said he was taking that stance because state law requires elected officials to go through the bidding process if they are to buy or sell goods worth $200 or more. The law is RSA 95:1 Public Officials Barred from Certain Private Dealings.

Further, Roberts said the gravel should have been bought from to Ambrose Brothers Inc., of Meredith, because they were awarded a previous gravel bid and they should have gotten the town's business again until a new gravel bid was awarded. Crushed gravel is used to surface dirt roads.

"The problem I have is it's over $200 and it didn't go out to bid," said Roberts. "I don't plan on signing the check for you. I think you're well aware of the $200 rule. Is there any question in your mind about the $200?"

In response, Robinson explained that he used his company's gravel for reasons of expediency. Robinson added he didn't have any questions about the state law.

"We were trying to get as much done as we could," said Robinson. "I thought it was in the best interest of the town to get it as close as we could to get the work done."

Selectman Willie Farnum also refused to sign the check. Farnum said because he and Roberts wouldn't sign, that meant Robinson's company would have to absorb the cost of the gravel as a business loss.

Selectman Bob Abraham, who was elected in March, said he had signed the bill prior to the discussion only because he wasn't entirely aware of the state regulations.

"I thought the services had been rendered and the materials supplied in good faith and that's why I have signed the check," said Abraham.

The same discussion of conflict of interest on the gravel purchase came up at the previous selectmen's meeting on March 18. At that meeting, Robinson told the board his company could get the gravel cheaper than Ambrose Brothers and that he had bought gravel from both places. Selectmen decided to put gravel purchases out to bid but didn't decide whether to pay for the gravel that Robinson bought from his company.

Breaking RSA 91:5 is considered a misdemeanor offense and in addition a person who is found guilty must give up his or her elected office. Deputy Attorney General Bud Fitch said the Attorney General's Public Integrity Unit would investigate alleged infractions of this law in any case where a complaint deserving of follow up is made. Complaints can be filed in several ways including over the phone and by e-mail, he said. Fitch said he's unaware of any complaints of this type being filed from the Tamworth area.

Roberts reminded Robinson that this isn't the first time they have had to deal with an RSA 95:1 issue by reading a story from the Conway Daily Sun that was published on Aug. 25, 1995. The story described how Robert's father, Emery, the Road Agent at the time, collected about $63,000 from the town beyond his salary for use of his heavy equipment. John Roberts, who was a sitting selectman at the time, was paid about $32,000 for roadwork and use of equipment.

The article went on to state that Robinson, who was a selectman at the time, collected about $12,000 from the town of Tamworth for sand and gravel and use of his of equipment. Robinson owns a crusher and a sand and gravel pit.

RSA 95:1 doesn't apply to services, but only to goods and real estate the article stated. One check to Robinson exceeded the $200 maximum. The check was to cover deliveries over several weeks but it was still a violation of the conflict of interest law, according to the article. At the time Selectmen responded by sending a memo about the law to all elected officials, the article stated.

"Do you recall that?" asked Roberts to Robinson. "We were on the board at the time."

Robinson replied, "I remember."

Later in the meeting, selectmen awarded bids for several types of gravel. There were three bidders: Alvin J. Coleman and Sons, of Conway, Bruce Robinson Co. and Ambrose Brothers. Selectmen awarded all the town's business to Ambrose Brothers.

Three quarter crushed gravel: Ambrose Brothers was $9.35 per yard or $6.23 per ton, Bruce Robinson Company was $11.48 per yard or $7.65 per ton, and Coleman was $7.50 per yard or $5 per ton.

Inch and one half crushed gravel: Ambrose Brothers was $9.35 per yard $6.23 per ton, Bruce Robin Company was $10.35 per yard or $6.90 per ton, and Coleman was $10.13 per yard or $6.75 per ton.

Three to six inch crushed gravel: Ambrose Brothers was $8 per yard or $5.33 per ton, Robinson was $9.75 per yard or $6.50 per ton, Coleman was $8.63 per yard or $5.75 per ton.

Three to six inch rip rap stone: Ambrose Brothers was $14.25 per yard $9.50 per ton and Coleman was $13.50 per yard or $9 per ton.

This isn't the only time RSA 95:1 has made news in Carroll County recently. During the last election season, questions surrounded Wakefield planning board and cemetery trustee candidate John Blackwood. Critics said when Blackwood was a sitting selectmen he performed thousands of dollars worth of field construction work at Wakefield's new cemetery, which had not gone out to bid. Wakefield town officials have admitted the work should have gone out to bid. Despite the controversy, Blackwood was elected to both posts.

In other Tamworth selectmen's news, Abraham asked fellow board members why he wasn't allowed access to nonpublic town documents like personnel records. Abraham said to start with he wanted to know if any town employees have letters of reprimand in their files.

Abraham said he got guidance over the phone from a Local Government Center Attorney Kim Hallquist who said a selectman should have access to any public or nonpublic information at any time as a group or individually.

"The reason I'm bringing this up is to do the job I was elected to do," said Abraham. "I need to be reviewing as much information as I possibly can. In the future, I would like to do that easily without having to wait for our staff to ask another selectman or the board if it's okay."

Abraham clarified that although he originally asked if he could see the material on weekends, he wasn't doing it to be secretive. Rather he was just trying to get caught up to speed.

But Farnum and Roberts replied that an individual selectman doesn't have the right to look at confidential records — only a majority of the board can do so. The Tamworth board of selectmen has three members. If there's a problem with an employee than the board will pull the employee's file and make a decision together.

"I've never had complete unfettered access," said Farnum. "If it's something needs to be dealt with in any way, the board needs to be called, then you go through pull the file and see what all the pieces to the puzzle are."

Abraham agreed that it's the board's responsibility to act as a group when handling town business.

Eventually, Abraham and the other board members worked out a compromise. Roberts agreed to meet Abraham at the town office so they could review the nonpublic material together in a posted closed-door meeting. Roberts suggested 2 p.m. on April 8.

Administrative Assistant Cassandra Pearce suggested that Abraham obtain the legal advice from LGC in writing. Pearce also said she is responsible for the documents that Abraham was looking for.

"I'm shocked," said Pearce. "I'm appalled she'd say that."

An LGC spokeswoman said LGC couldn't comment on or describe the advice Hallquist gave to Abraham.

Roberts made a motion asking Pearce to change the combination to the vault's locks and make sure that the only people that will have access to the vault would be Pearce, Bookkeeper Anne Abear, and Town Clerk/Tax Collector Kim Noyes.

"The less people who have access the better," said Roberts, whose motion passed 3-0. Roberts said his motion wasn't aimed at Abraham. Rather, he had the combination at one time and he made his motion to make sure he wouldn't have access any longer.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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