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County attorney, commissioners at loggerheads over office

Commissioners Tom Brady, left, of Jefferson and Burnham “Bing” Judd, center, of Pittsburg voted at its Aug. 11 meeting to forbid County Attorney Robert “Bob” Mekeel from moving his office out of the Coös County Courthouse in Lancaster. The impasse was not resolved at the delegation’s meeting on Friday in West Stewartstown. Edith Tucker. (click for larger version)
August 18, 2010
LANCASTER — An impasse has developed over where the county attorney office will be located after Sept. 1.

The Coös County commissioners — chairman Burnham "Bing" Judd of Pittsburg and clerk Tom Brady of Jefferson, both Republicans, voted 2 to 0, on Wednesday, Aug. 11, to forbid the county attorney from moving his office, including the victim-witness program, out of the Coös County courthouse.

Commissioner Paul Grenier, a Democrat of Berlin, was absent.

County attorney Robert "Bob" Mekeel, a Democrat, wrote the commissioners on July 22 that on Sept. 1 he intended on to move the Office of the County Attorney from its current location on the first floor of the courthouse to the third floor of the former Lancaster Bank building at the corner of Middle and Main Street.

Mr. Mekeel pointed out, as he has for at least a year, that the "present space is inadequate for the work conducted by the County Attorney. As you know," he wrote, "it has been my wish to remain in the state courthouse but that option does not seem viable at any time in the near future."

In response, the commissioners asked Mr. Mekeel to be at their monthly meeting and placed him at the top of their agenda.

The county attorney repeated his reasons for developing plans to move out of the courthouse and pointed out that as a state Constitutional officer he not only has the right but also the responsibility to serve the people of Coös County.

The quarters to which he plans to move would double his working space and provide ample storage space for closed files, Mr. Mekeel said.

Chairman Judd said he had been disappointed that when state court and administrative officials recently toured the building in a search of adequate and suitable office space papers were piled all over the floor. The "mess," he said, "was uncalled for."

Mr. Mekeel said that the problem was not one of housekeeping but due to grossly inadequate space. More than double the cases now come over the county attorney's threshold than even in the very recent past.

In March, a subcommittee of the county delegation of state representatives headed by Rep. Paul Ingersoll, a Democrat of Berlin, recommended that the county budget be increased to allow the county attorney to rent space outside the courthouse, Mr. Mekeel pointed out, noting that $2,000 a month had been included in the 2010-2011 budget.

Commissioner Judd pointed out, however, that the commissioners are the county's governing body.

Mr. Mekeel countered that the county attorney is a Constitutional officer who controls all its aspects of the Office's functioning.

Commissioner Brady said that an unnamed lawyer had told him that the state Supreme Court had ruled in Rockingham County's favor in a case involving the Rockingham Sheriff, affirming that only county commissioners can legally sign leases.

The county attorney maintains that that case only applies to county property.

A personal interchange raised the level of at the meeting, with Commissioner Brady waggling his finger at Mr. Mekeel and chastising him for being sarcastic.

"Use proper language," directed Commissioner Brady.

After the meeting was adjourned, Mr. Mekeel told the three members of the press that the 1972 case — Fortier vs. Grafton County — affirmed that the register of deeds there did not have to move to a county facility that did not provide suitable space.

The commissioners have a legal duty, he said, to provide suitable space.

At the moment Mr. Mekeel explained he has documents all over his dining room table at his home on the Colebrook explosion that involves two deaths. There is no place in his courthouse office in which to spread out these papers while he makes a determination on whether there is a case to prosecute.

The dustup continued at the county delegation's meeting on Friday in West Stewartstown.

Delegation chairman Rep. Robert Theberge, a Democrat of Berlin, suggested that Commissioner Brady and vice chairman Rep. William "Bill" Hatch, a Democrat of Gorham, could work together to reach a resolution.

Treasurer Fred King said he would not be able to authorize rent payment checks if the county attorney's lease did not meet the requirements under the law that governs his duties.

Rep. Evalyn Merrick of Lancaster said that the larger issue of providing suitable space to the county attorney so that he could perform his very important duties should prevail.

Rep. Eric Stohl of Columbia said that he could not see why the delegation should insert itself in a dispute between the commissioners and the county attorney. The delegation, he reminded, had appropriated additional funds in March to allow the county attorney to move to larger quarters outside the courthouse.

At meeting's end, the various parties' next steps remained unclear, but chairman Theberge declared that he would prefer not to "air dirty laundry in public."

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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