Seven BudCom Members Take Vote in Violation of State Law

February 20, 2015

by S. Aaron Shamshoyan

A vote to reconsider a recommendation by the Salem Budget Committee on Article 7, a proposed public safety complex has been deemed illegal by town lawyers since the article was not amended during the deliberative session on Feb. 7.

Town attorney Barton Mayer cited RSA 32:5, V. (b) which states in part, If the article is amended at first session of the meeting in an official ballot referendum municipality, the governing body and budget committee, if one exists, may revise its recommendation on the special warrant article and the revised recommendation shall appear on the ballot.

“The budget committee does not have the legal authority to change its recommendation when the town meeting has not amended the article,” Mayer wrote.

The motion to reconsider at a budget committee meeting in the high school’s lobby immediately after deliberative session came from member Martha Spalding.

Draft minutes from the meeting do not detail discussion on the motion but only indicate the reconsideration vote was 4-3 to move without recommendation.

Clarification on the minutes from Chairman Dane Hoover said the four supporting votes to change the recommendation were himself, Shannon Bettencourt, Martha Spalding, and Paul Welch.  Opposed to the change were Robert Bryant, Paul Huard, and Selectmen’s Representative Stephen Campbell.

Spalding said at the Feb. 11 budget committee meeting, she was told information she received from Selectman James Keller was wrong and that public meetings were not held while drafting the proposal.

“I felt it was only fair for taxpayers to have some input when coming up with the proposal,” she said.  “I asked Selectman Keller if there had been public hearings, when he said ‘yes,’ it was enough for me to vote with recommendation.”

Keller stood by his words to Spalding saying the meetings were indeed public and was confused how she heard otherwise.

“I’m all about transparency, Keller later said.  “I’m all about integrity, I don’t lie to people.”

He said besides public hearings at the budget committee, board of selectmen, and deliberative session, other meetings were open and held in the conference room at the town hall.

“I don’t know how much more public they could be,” Keller said.  “They were all public.”

Budget committee member Paul Huard said the committee had been meeting for two years, and people could have joined the committee at any time.

“This went on for two years, so it is not like new, so it wasn’t a surprise,” he said.

School board representative Michael Carney could not attend the post-deliberative meeting but weighed in after hearing about the vote.

“They don’t know the law,” Carney, a former budget committee member, said.  “I think they really saw I wasn’t there and they had the vote to change it.”

He said the reconsideration was not needed and there should have been enough information presented initially.

“They have a public meeting, they take a preliminary vote, they take a final vote,” he said.

Hoover said the vote was a mistake explaining he was unaware of the clause requiring an article to be amended before reconsidering it.

“I didn’t see the clause,” he said.  “I was unaware of the clause.”

At the Feb. 11 meeting, Hoover, a two-term chairman, said the young board was unaware of the clause.

“All of us being less than one term, except Mr. Huard being a term and a quarter,” he said.  “It is with recommendation for the safety complex.”

Huard said the board should have known the vote was not allowed during the meeting.

“The two of us at least should have known better.  That was not necessary because there had been no change,” he said to Hoover.

Selectmen’s Representative Stephen Campbell, a 16-year veteran of the budget committee who has advocated against the proposal, said he forgot the clause.

“None of the seven of us that voted remembered the rules,” he said.  “It slipped my mind.”

Budget committee member Stephen Plante was also absent from the meeting after the deliberative session.

Article 7 will be on the March ballot seeking to construct a joint public safety complex combining the police department and central fire station.