SALEM — What began as a simple review of the Salem Community Television budget last night boiled over into a debate on town policy.
As SCTV executive director Thomas Giarrosso explained his proposed 2013 budget to selectmen, the discussion evolved into a heated exchange over whether the board should have been notified about two station workers joining a union for Salem employees.
The $423,000 SCTV budget was finally approved 4-1 but only after nearly an hour of debate triggered by concern that Town Manager Keith Hickey wasn't keeping the board fully informed. The budget review also prompted discussion of whether the School Department should benefit from cable television services and equipment purchased by the town.
Selectman Stephen Campbell told Hickey he was unhappy the two SCTV employees were allowed to join the union without selectmen being told. The move increased their hourly pay from $14.82 to $16.79, boosting the station's budget for employees from $105,000 in 2012 to $121,000 in 2013.
Campbell said it was the board's decision to make, not Hickey's.
"The Board of Selectmen is not making policy," Campbell said. "We are not being given the right to set policy."
Selectman Everett McBride Jr. agreed, saying he had spoken to Hickey about the issue earlier in the day. McBride was on vacation, but he participated in last night's meeting by speakerphone.
"When I talked to the town manager today, I told him I'm not happy we weren't informed," McBride said. "We should have been."
Campbell cited a recent controversy over the town's decision to participate in a regional planning project, A Granite State Future. Hickey and community development director Robert Puff said the town's participation would allow it to save money while updating Salem's master plan.
But a group of Salem and Windham residents led by Ken Eyring, a founder of the conservative political group Southern New Hampshire 9.12, said taking part in the federally funded program would lead to a loss of local control.
Selectmen, especially Campbell, said they didn't even realize Salem had signed a memorandum of understanding to join the group and wished they had been informed.
Hickey admitted he should have told selectmen about the workers joining the union and said he wasn't trying to hide anything.
"I take fully responsibility for not telling the board what happened," Hickey said.
But Hickey became defensive when Campbell mentioned A Granite State Future. He said there was no comparison between the two.
Campbell disagreed, refusing to accept Hickey's apology.
"The comparison is the Board of Selectmen are not being told things beforehand," Campbell said. "An apology, in my mind, isn't sufficient."
Campbell urged the board to seek a legal opinion, saying allowing the pair to join the union most likely violated the current contract.
He told his colleagues they were obligated to reject the proposed SCTV budget.
"Changing a contract is not allowed," he said. "I think we should vote it down because we are violating the law."
Campbell also said there needs to be a clearer distinction of cable costs shared between the town and school district. Giarrosso said the two have worked well together for years.
Chairman Patrick Hargreaves asked Campbell if the School Department should bill the town every time it uses school property or resources. Campbell was the only selectmen to oppose the proposed contract.
In other action, selectmen took an initial look at capital improvement proposals for 2014-2017 but postponed discussion until November. They also reviewed proposed warrant articles, involving numerous town-owned properties, but will consider the topic again next month.