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Commissioner and state reps question the public's right-to-know

May 19, 2011
OSSIPEE— What constitutes a public meeting? According to an opinion of the NH Attorney General's Office, a public body such as the board of commissioners holds a meeting when "a quorum of the membership of the public body is convened in person so that all members may communicate contemporaneously." Chance or social meetings, that are neither planned nor intended for the purpose of discussing matters relating to official business, and at which no deliberations are conducted and no decisions are made, are specifically exempt from the open meeting requirement.

The issue came up at the May 11 commissioner's meeting. Commission Chair David Sorensen has been attending the weekly meeting with the nursing home build team, taking over the position held previously by former commissioner Chip Albee. At the last construction meeting, Commissioner Asha Kenney also attended. She argued that this is not a public meeting, does not need to be posted and minutes are not required because the commissioner's are not making decisions but rather attending for information and discussion purposes only.

Nursing home administrator Sandi McKenzie and Albee acknowledged construction meetings in the past did involve the commissioners needing to make decisions so the contractors could move forward. Kenney said she contacted the attorney general's office and was told this is not considered a public meeting. NH Representative Betsey Patten said it would be best to be over-cautious on the side of the right-to-know-law rather than under-cautious for the protection of the county.

What appear to not be public meetings are the Republican caucuses that are happening on a regular basis in Concord where Carroll County state representatives are discussing not only state issues and strategy but also county issues, including the future fate of the old nursing home.

Responding to comments made at the May 4 commission meeting, N.H. Representative Frank McCarthy came to the May 11 commission meeting to defend the actions of the representatives and their right to hold these secret meetings at any time they choose to convene. "It's no dirty secret meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. It's not covered by [RSA] 91-A. It is just a meeting of individuals who are elected at the state level of the same party to exchange ideas. That's all it is. We have a caucus twice a week. We have a caucus of the freshman over the internet on a daily basis to exchange ideas. What is going on? What do you think about this? What do you think about that? Decisions aren't made but a lot of information is exchanged. Just because it isn't covered by 91-A doesn't make it dirty…it was mentioned that this dirty secret meeting we are going to have is to do away with the cooperative extension. I don't know where that came from. No one has mentioned that to me from the 14 members of the delegation. We wanted to have a caucus to talk over different things that are going on, particularly the revamping of the old nursing home, how much we want to put into it, what we were willing to do, what has to be done because of the new nursing home. Where the idea came from that we wanted to do away with the cooperative extension, it came from one of the stars because it didn't come from us," said Rep. McCarthy. He was asked by this reporter to explain why a non-public caucus is necessary when the purpose is to discuss county business, not state strategy, especially since all the elected delegates are Republicans. He said basically, the representatives have the right to meet privately and reiterated that there is nothing dirty going on.

Sorensen clarified that he had heard there was going to be a caucus and that perhaps he made a mistake when he mentioned that perhaps they are going to discuss doing away with the cooperative extension. Despite discussions going on for the past four to five years that the old nursing home would be home of the UNH Cooperative Extension's Carroll County offices, Sorensen he had also heard there was talk amongst the delegates to tear down the entire building, essentially eliminating the extension. Ultimately, the commissioners have control over what happens to the building, including mothballing it and just letting it sit there, said Sorensen, but the delegation has control over the money that will be needed to pay for revamping the home.

Henry Spencer said county issues are precisely the information that should be discussed in public. "When discussing money and issues that relate to public money, it should no longer be a caucus," he said. He said he is strongly opposed to representatives meeting like this. "What could you possibly want to talk about that couldn't be discussed in public?" he added. He said a caucus is set up for the state parties to figure out how to deal with the state issues in relationship to the other party, not county issues without people from the county having the privilege to be there.

McCarthy, Patten, and Rep. Joe Fleck left after the discussion on the issue without further addressing the handling of county business outside of a public meeting.

Patten did generously write a check to the county farm in the amount of $100 as a personal donation to the pig program.

Cable conduit

County commissioners approved adding additional conduit to the new nursing home "if it is within reasonable cost" to offer an alternative down the road. Currently, Time Warner Cable is running its wiring and components in the home. In the future if this is ever changed to satellite television, installation of the conduit now will save costs later, explained maintenance supervisor Bob Murray. When asked how soon the conduit would need to be installed, he said, "yesterday" and that time is of the essence before all of the new sheetrock in installed. Without a firm estimate, commissioners approved moving forward with the work as long as the cost is reasonable.

Laundry Program

In a follow-up to last week's meeting, the idea of all laundry at the county complex being done onsite rather than sheets and towels being sent out to a professional service, Murray and Will Dewitt addressed the issue. Murray retracted a previous statement that this would require hiring two additional staff. After further research, he has determined it would require only the hiring of one extra staff and the purchase of a folding machine. The machine can do in one hour what two people can do in six hours, he said. Also, it reduces the possibility of worker injury by not having two staff folding sheets all day for six hours, a repetitive motion that could cause worker's compensation claims for shoulder and elbow injuries. Additionally, the commissioners were told that the current sewer and water reserves could accommodate the expanded laundry operation. There is no room built into the new nursing home for expanded laundry area so the thought it to use part of the old nursing home for this purpose.

Pigs and Firewood

Currently, five piglets are calling the Carroll County Farm home. With Dewitt purchasing a few, N.H. Rep. David Babson donating one and supplies borrowed from other farmers, the program is off to a good start. Dewitt will be hosting educational sessions for the public to learn about the proper raising of pigs. The program is currently accepting monetary donations for food and equipment that will become county property for the future. Dewitt said members of the community have been coming forward to offer donations to the program.

Finding the more lucrative way to distribute firewood, Dewitt said the sale of packaged wood to campgrounds is the way to go versus selling cordwood to the community.

Registering the nursing home name

There were too many questions about the process, so another hearing will be scheduled to officially register the new name of the nursing home, Mountain View Community. N.H. Secretary of State records show that in 1980, the home was first named Carroll County Nursing Home. This name was changed in 1985 to The Mountain View Nursing Home Association. Annual filings had not been done to keep the name officially and it actually expired in 1991. In March 2010, commissioners filed a Certificate of Revival to revive that name.

Wolfeboro Workforce Housing

Commissioner Dorothy Solomon said she attended the ribbon cutting ceremony for a workforce housing project in Wolfeboro on May 6. She said, "It took a number of years to get this off the ground but they are going ahead with it. It will be a good project for the area and Carroll County. I'm pleased everyone got together and made this happen."

Garnett Hill
Penny Pitou
Martin Lord Osman
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