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No new fire chief in West Ossipee – for now

Commissioners consider a potential conflict of interest

May 19, 2011
WEST OSSIPEE — Several projects are moving forward at West Ossipee Fire Precinct, but hiring a new fire chief isn't one of them – at least for now.

Commission Chair Paul Jay said at the commissioners meeting last Monday, May 16, there are no plans at this time to seek out or appoint a new chief. Carl Huddleston continues to serve as acting chief alongside Jay, two new commissioners and the precinct's new secretary.

Projects currently being worked on include a new boiler being installed at the department's Route 16 station after one installed last fall failed inspection by NH Department of Labor: it was discovered it was not certified for commercial use. Upgrades to the station's electrical system are underway to correct problems including breakers that would trip whenever more than one machine ran at once such as the coffeemaker and the vacuum. Commissioners also reported, with the assistance of fire department members, the inventory is being completed to finalize the property-liability insurance renewals and work on the department's air boat is being finished to get that back into service.

Asked about the financial condition of the precinct, Commissioner Greg Howard said about a month ago the commissioners looked at the long range large expenses such as the building bond and engine payments. He reported that, financially, the precinct is in a positive light and the commissioners have been able to set aside money to meet those upcoming obligations without borrowing against a tax anticipation note. The audit of 2010 financial records is scheduled to begin at the end of the month.

Resident Joe Goss said the treasurer should be present at the commissioner's meetings to give reports on the financial condition of the precinct. "You oughta have a chat with that boy and find out what's going on. All the other public officials attend these meetings," he said. Currently, the precinct has three elected commissioners, as well as an elected clerk, treasurer and moderator.

According to state law, the treasurer's duties include keeping "custody" of all precinct funds, signing checks that are approved by the commissioners, keeping books that fairly and accurately account for all precinct funds and making those available at the request of the commissioners and investing funds that are not immediately needed for expenditure. There is nothing in the law that says the treasurer, moderator, or clerk has to attend any monthly commission meetings.

Conflict of interest

Controlling where a precinct employee works after they leave employment of the fire precinct is something the commissioners have no authority to do, acknowledged Commissioner Jay.

A very vocal West Ossipee resident, Steve Moore, made the point several times during the May 16 meeting, that former precinct secretary Mellisa Ferland should not be allowed to report on meetings of the commission, even though she resigned her position May 6, given that over the years she was privy to non-public issues. He pushed the issue several times, nearly demanding the commission contact the Carroll County Independent and force the issue with the editor.

Commissioner Howard agreed he thinks it is a conflict of interest, especially since her most recent article published came the day before her last day working at the precinct. Howard's wife, Gail, called it double-dipping for the former secretary to be taking minutes at the meeting then writing about it for the paper. "This is not ethical," she said. Howard said it would be much more effective if concerned taxpayers contacted the editor themselves if the paper chooses not to assign another reporter to cover the meetings.

Commissioner Jay said, "Ms. Ferland is well aware of her responsibilities," to protect confidential information she obtained as an employee of the precinct. But he later agreed to contact the editor to express the opinion of the four people who commented on the issue at the meeting.

Ironically, earlier in the meeting, Moore announced that during the second week of February a gentleman delivered documents to his house that related to a non-public issue involving the attorney general's office, regarding the possible loan or payroll advance given to an employee. He would not divulge the name of the gentleman who provided the documents to him. Commissioner Jay said there was a concern at the time, and that it was forwarded to the attorney general's office for opinion. There were actions taken including implementing new policies and the attorney general's office deemed the matter unfounded.

Non-public sessions typically include the recording secretary, commissioners, and may or may not include the person to which the non-public session relates. Monday night, former commissioner Goss was asked if he had provided the non-public documents to Moore. He denied having done so.

After lengthy discussion regarding the potential conflict of interest and Ferland's ability to "not cross the line" between protecting the precinct's interest and doing her job of reporting on public meetings, Ferland was given the opportunity to speak on her behalf.

This reporter pointed out that she has worked a combined 10 and one-half years as a reporter, either full-time or as a freelance contributor. During that time, she has also served in various positions with the towns of Freedom, Effingham, Tamworth, and Ossipee, and as recording secretary for the county commission. She said that there has never been a complaint that she has divulged confidential information of any kind and is well aware of where the line is.

Additionally, she asked the commissioners to keep in mind that she was not the one who delivered non-public documents to Moore and that perhaps the board should consider the implications of elected officials or others in the precinct that are divulging non-public information.

Garnet Hill
Martin Lord Osman
Penny Pitou
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