Alstead’s selectmen made it clear this week the town’s finances are in trouble.
Though the town has only six full-time employees, the board sent letters to all six, advising them to seriously consider alternative employment if they can. It was an unusual move that could be interpreted as either an extraordinarily generous heads-up or, more cynically, as a scare tactic aimed at voters heading into the next budget cycle.
Selectman Matthew Saxton insists the letter was meant only to give the town’s workers notice that next year’s budget may call for cuts, so they might want to jump on any employment chances that come their way. To elaborate, the board then scheduled a meeting with those employees — behind closed doors, in clear violation of the state’s open-meeting laws.
Whether the board has the right to meet privately with employees might depend on circumstances and legal interpretation. There are, of course, exceptions to the requirement that elected boards do their business in public.
The board eventually emerged from behind closed doors with a claim the private meeting was to discuss personnel issues and/or matters that could adversely affect the reputation of people not on the board. However, those exemptions are meant to protect individuals; a meeting called for the purpose of discussing the possible future employment of ALL of the town’s full-time workers would not seem to qualify.
As Rob Bertsche, general counsel to the New England Newspaper and Press Association, put it: “… the exemption upon which the selectmen rely applies only to personnel actions of specific, identified employees.
… It is not a reference to a meeting to discuss the mass possibility of not rehiring any and all public employees.”
In any case, Alstead’s board did not, as is required under state law, meet publicly first to vote on such a move, nor did it cite, until after the fact, what exemptions to the state’s open-meeting law it felt warranted the session. Pressed by a Sentinel reporter beforehand to justify closing the doors, it dismissed any need to do so.
To call the board’s actions disappointing would be underselling the importance of the public’s role in good government. Selectmen Saxton, Joel McCarty and Michael Jasmin slapped the voters and taxpayers of Alstead in the face Tuesday.
All three have been on the board for years, Saxton and McCarty for a decade or longer. Situations involving the Right-to-Know law have undoubtedly come up repeatedly during their tenures. They have no excuse for not following the law.
In closing the doors without a valid vote and without justification, they told the town’s residents: We don’t care what you think. You have no place in this discussion.
They are, of course, mistaken. The town’s residents have every right to be involved in the running of the local government, and to hear the reasoning behind such an unusual letter.
In this case, we imagine Alstead taxpayers are wondering why their town, which is not unlike many others in the region, is facing such a dire fiscal future. They might wonder how much trouble the town is in, and what steps the selectmen have taken to try to head off having to let workers go, if it comes to that. The public has the right to know why, and how, and when and who.
Civics matters. What the government is up to, at every level, matters. It’s not just a case of protecting against corruption and malfeasance, though those are certainly important. It’s also about being able to understand the decisions that are made, and to question those decisions.
The state, in enacting the Right-to-Know statute, showed agreement with these principles.
However, the law is also unwieldy. It involves suing those who break it, something that is costly in time and money, and most often yields only a stern rebuke and a warning to do better.
Because of that, legal challenges based on the statute are few these days.
And that’s led, far too frequently, to officials choosing to duck public discussion simply because they don’t want anyone listening in as they make hard choices.
Alstead’s selectmen have served the town’s interest well in the past. That doesn’t give them a pass on following the law and letting the townspeople in on their decision-making.