Assistant Mayor of Portsmouth, NH, Jim Splaine, is in a self-created Right to Know jam. As an advocate for openness in government for as long as New Hampshire has taken the issue seriously, he should know the ropes as well as anyone.
Here goes my take on the situation. I have a few years of Right to Know battles under my belt as well. And I have been involved in similar situations.
A City police officer let an elderly woman, citizen, taxpayer, of Portsmouth, who was suffering with dementia, put him in her will. This act has caught the entire city of Portsmouth in a tangled web of dirty municipal politics. Recovering from the never ending bad press has been more than difficult. The City Council, clerk, city manager, lawyer for the officer were in a non-public session recently under RSA 91-A discussing a “negotiated end” to the employment of the officer who clearly stepped over the line of decency with regards to self-enrichment from the woman’s estate.
And as usual, the officer would walk away with a huge settlement and possibility of no blemish on his official record. This is wrong and it goes on all too often. It makes me sick that punks and weasels who worm their way on to good NH police departments get special treatment when caught and removed. Jim Splaine was in the middle of one of these deals in a non-public session.
Much to the surprise of the other elected and appointed persons at the non-public session Jim Splaine went public with the golden parachute and wrist slap the crooked officer was about to receive. That is a breach of confidentiality of the official Portsmouth sneaky meeting and it is in the news.
I like to refer to any non-public session that is only non-public so as to hide a dirty deed – NOT to preserve needed, legitimate privacy in the function of any municipality – as a “sneaky meeting”.
Now admittedly, Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine has done the public a legitimate service in an illegitimate way. But he has offered NH a chance to expose and possibly correct one of the worst aspects of sneaky meetings.
Here are the issues as I see them:
- The Portsmouth governing body consists of INDIVIDUALS elected to office by the people. They are not supposed to act as one entity. Each has a vote. Each has an individual conscious. A popular notion with some in government is that when you are elected to a governing body you surrender your individual opinion and individual vote to the group as soon as a majority on that group has come to a general consensus. This is the “minority of a minority rules” in representative government. If you want three people to run a five-person board, which has authority of an entire municipality, all you have to do is to muscle the minority into silence under the guise of “we work as a team.” Consistent unanimous votes are not always sign of success – for taxpayers.
Split votes call attention to issues citizens may need to be aware of. Too many non-public meetings are a sure sign of problems as well.
- The Right to Know Law has been “fixed” so many times in recent years it has even more opportunities for lawyers and public officials to invent loop-holes. And we are re-litigating issues involving RSA 91-A at the State Supreme Court level that have been decided over and over again. This encourages some in government to keep testing the law at citizen and government expense.
- In this case, Jim Splaine’s lawyer is arguing that the City Manager was in the non-public session and that made the meeting non-conforming with RSA 91-A. But the city manager law RSA 49-C:16 clearly states, in part: “The city manager shall have the right to take part in the discussion of all matters before the city council, but not the right to vote.” Attorney McEachern knows this. His argument about the city clerk not being allowed in a non-public session is a hard sell on its own. (It might be time to put some limits on city and town managers.)
- The article about the Portsmouth City Council having “non-meetings” is odd in that this term is not in RSA 91-A? Are non-meetings allowed in the Portsmouth City Charter? I hope not.
In my opinion Jim Splaine took an action on behalf of the citizens of Portsmouth and was looking out for the elderly woman who was taken advantage of by a bad cop. Jim Splaine is a big boy and he can take care of himself. This was a calculated move.
His actions also serve as a warning to other municipalities that are quietly paying off bad cops and setting them loose with clean records. (Are you paying attention Weare?)
The offended sneaky meeting attendees have the right to take Jim Splaine to court for his violation of their sneaky meeting. But that poses the question: Do the sneaky meeting officials in Portsmouth have the guts?
The fun part about this is – are you ready.
Under RSA 91-A Jim Splaine, if he is the subject of any sneaky meetings by his fellow officials, has the right to have them held in a public meeting!
I think we all know where this dust up is headed.