Budget committee discusses police cruiser vote
May 04, 2010
BARNSTEAD — A recent vote by Barnstead's Board of Selectmen to keep a police cruiser that was originally set to be replaced by a newer vehicle in service prompted budget committee members to question last week whether the decision went against a Warrant article approved in March.
As the budget committee gathered at Town Hall for a last-minute work session on April 28, Chairman Paul Landry explained that he had called the meeting in order to discuss whether the selectmen had voted against the spirit of Article 6 on this year's town Warrant (which asked voters to raise and appropriate $30,000 to purchase and equip a new police vehicle) by deciding to hold onto an older cruiser, which (according to Police Chief Ken Borgia) has become a safety hazard, and should be replaced.
The final vote by the selectmen, Landry said, was 3-2, with Andy Houle, Bob LaRoche and Kathy Grillo voting in favor of keeping the old cruiser, and Dave Kerr and Jim Barnard opposed.
"My first read of it is that their action is contrary to the purpose of the [Warrant] article," he said, explaining that as he understood it, the committee and the townspeople had voted in favor of Article 6 based on the belief that the new vehicle would replace the old cruiser.
Another concern Landry said he wanted to address was the fact that, according to eyewitness accounts, committee member Bill Haynes was "treated rather roughly" by LaRoche when he appeared at the April 20 selectmen's meeting to voice his concerns about the vote on the cruiser.
Haynes said he had approached the selectmen as a concerned resident and budget committee member during the public input portion of the April 20 meeting to state that he was disappointed to read about their vote to keep the cruiser in service in the previous week's issue of The Baysider.
Although the selectmen initially seemed to accept his comments calmly, he said, LaRoche lashed out at him at a later point in the meeting, accusing Haynes of questioning his integrity.
[Editor's note: Contributing Writer Billy Perkins' report on the April 20 meeting corroborates Haynes' depiction of events. Kerr, who serves as the selectmen's representative to the budget committee, said Haynes' account also matched his recollection of what took place during the meeting.]
By the end of the meeting, however, Haynes said he and LaRoche had agreed to "let bygones be bygones."
"What I voted for wasn't to keep [the old cruiser]," he said, explaining that he had voted to recommend passage of Article 6 because as a state trooper himself, he found Borgia's concerns about safety "compelling."
Noting that some committee members had contacted officials at the state Department of Revenue Administration to ask whether the selectmen's vote was legal, and had received different opinions (which he said he did not find surprising, given the fact that a response from the DRA often depends on the exact wording of the question being asked), Landry said he recently spoke with his own contact at the DRA, who told him she was hesitant to "get in the middle of it."
Stating that he "vividly" recalled being told by Borgia during a work session earlier this year that the old cruiser would be replaced because it was unsafe, Landry asked the remaining committee members what their recollections were.
Committee member Cathy Kowalski said she remembered Borgia being "vehement about removing that car from the [police department's] fleet."
School board representative Diane Beijer said that according to her recollection of events, Borgia wanted to keep the old cruiser in service, and it was the committee that recommended it be replaced with the newer vehicle.
Kerr noted that Borgia had told the committee one of his command officers liked the old cruiser, and felt that it would last a bit longer if he was the only one driving it.
Kowalsi remembered there being a discussion about the possibility of transferring the old cruiser to another town department, such as the Highway Department.
Committee member Bruce Grey said he had been present for Borgia's initial presentation to the selectmen on Article 6, and recalled no mention of the old cruiser being kept in service.
"[Borgia] said very much the same thing to us," he added.
Haynes said his chief concern with the idea of holding onto the old cruiser was with leaving it fully marked and equipped.
"If the equipment is stripped out of it, that's another issue," he said, explaining that he had voted to support Article 6 in the hope that some of the equipment from the old cruiser could be transferred into the new vehicle, saving the police department from having to utilize the entire $30,000 appropriation.
Beijer commented that according to her recollection of the work session on the town Warrant, the selectmen had made their intention to replace the old cruiser very clear.
Kerr explained that when the selectmen drew up the town Warrant earlier this year (before Grillo and LaRoche joined the board), their intent was to replace the old cruiser with the new vehicle.
"There was no question as to what 'replacement' meant," he said.
"What should we do about this?" Landry asked, seeking ideas on how to proceed.
"What are our parameters?" Kowalski replied, adding that it sounded to her as though "we're debating the definition of 'replacement.'"
"I voted as it was represented to us," committee member Brian White said, explaining that he had supported the proposal to replace the old cruiser.
In the past, he commented, voters have been known to send back vehicles and equipment purchased with money appropriated at town meeting if they decided later that the article had been misrepresented in some way.
Kerr suggested that the selectmen could take another vote on the matter.
"Virtually anything can be brought up again for another vote," he asked.
Grey suggested that the committee send a letter to the board of selectmen outlining their concerns, and asking the board to re-consider its earlier vote.
In his mind, he said, the selectmen's decision had eroded the trust they and the budget committee have built over the past two years by working together more than they have in the past.
"When you look me in the eye and tell me something" and then go back on that, he said, "the trust that we had starts to go away with me."
Noting that the selectmen planned to meet with Borgia this past Tuesday (May 4), Landry said he would be attending that meeting, and suggested that other committee members join him, explain the thought process behind their own vote on Article 6, and ask the selectmen to re-consider their decision.
While he had "no problem" going to the DRA, Landry said he did not feel it was the budget committee's job to file a complaint with the state.
"Once we make our recommendations, our job is done," he said.
Kowalski said her primary concern was how Grillo, Houle, and LaRoche arrived at the decision to keep the old cruiser in service when the original intent was to replace it.
"How did those three selectmen make that leap?" she asked.
Kerr explained that Borgia had suggested the cruiser could be used for prisoner transport or spare parts.
Chuckling at the idea of using the cruiser for prisoner transport, Haynes said that if it cannot safely carry officers, it should not be used to carry prisoners.
At most, Haynes said he could envision the cruiser being used by the town as an administrative vehicle in order to cut down on the cost of mileage reimbursement.
"The concern there is that we'd need to have one person responsible for it," Kerr commented.
White said he was worried about the "misrepresentation issue" leading to a "knee-jerk reaction" among voters the next time a similar proposal comes forward.
"The voters won't forget this, and we need to bear that in mind in the future," Landry replied.
While he understood the rationale behind White's concerns, Landry said he "wouldn't want to take away [the police department's] ability to buy the vehicle."
Haynes commented that if he had drafted the Warrant article, and had intended to keep the old cruiser in service, he would have stipulated in the article that the cruiser would be maintained.
Grey suggested that the two new selectmen who voted in favor of keeping the cruiser should have taken an opportunity educate themselves on how Warrant articles work before questioning the intent behind Article 6.
Ultimately, the committee agreed with Landry's proposal to approach the selectmen during their May 4 meeting.
Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org