EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 20, 2013

Sounds of official silence troubles some in N.H.

More boards appoint spokesman to speak for all

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — Voters and taxpayers in New Hampshire are getting the silent treatment from some elected officials.

Sometimes they stand behind their board chairman. Other times, it’s a paid administrator who answers for them.

But they are refusing to answer questions or offer opinions about what they are doing as public office-holders.

In Derry, the Town Council imposed a gag order on members, refusing to discuss their decision not to renew the town administrator’s contract and pay him severance.

They designated the acting administrator to speak for them.

In communities served by the Timberlane Regional School District, it regularly happens. District policy is that only the chairman officially speaks for the School Board outside meetings. School Board Chairman Robert Collins did not return a call seeking comment.

In Plaistow, library trustees will refer questions to their chairman.

This silent treatment is concerning to Granite Staters.

“I think we’re seeing a spike in that,” Granite State Taxpayers chairman Jim Adams said.

When local officials routinely refuse to speak about issues before them, residents say it’s wrong.

“That’s not right,” Windham Taxpayers Coalition board member Ken Eyring said. “They are working for the people. When people clam up and shield information from the public, they are not performing their duties with the public’s good in mind.”

It’s not the politician’s business that worries citizens.

“These are elected officials doing the people’s business,” Adams said.

Observers see the behavior as more common.

“I’ve noticed it over the last couple of years,” said Dean Spiliotes, Southern New Hampshire University political science professor. “Is this some kind of trend at the local level? Or is it something uniquely New Hampshire?”

Spiliotes isn’t sure.

But he sees in what he calls “blanket moves not to talk” a couple of possible reasons.

One is to reduce potential liability in personnel matters, he said.

“But I’m guessing a lot of these boards and councils find it more efficient not to get caught up in debate with the public,” Spiliotes said. “They would rather not get bogged down with gadflies, other groups or the press.”

Boards may risk aggravating local activists, but these situations may be lost on the average, busy voter, Spiliotes said.

“In some situations, there is nothing to be gained by the board member from getting into it with an individual who has a bone to pick,” Spiliotes said.

Whether officials like being questioned or not, that’s all part of the job, Eyring said.

“That’s what they sign up for,” he said.

Another concern for boards may be limiting infighting among themselves, Spiliotes said.

“This maximizes control,” Spiliotes said. “It keeps order internally.”

Daniel Bromberg, a University of New Hampshire assistant professor who teaches public administration, said he doesn’t know it to be a common practice.

But the purpose is for boards to get the same message across, he said.

“It’s not necessarily a terrible thing,” Bromberg said.

He pointed out a different trend for boards to use technology to be more transparent in their actions.

“They are putting more up online,” he said.

In Derry, four of the councilors — Mark Osborne, Phyllis Katsakiores, Neil Wetherbee and Al Dimmock — responded to calls requesting comment about their gag order.

Disobeying the gag order is not an option, they said.

“I believe we needed to go through the proper channels,” Dimmock said.

Dimmock and Katsakiores said as public officials elected by the people of Derry, it’s difficult for them to remain mum on a significant local issue.

Katsakiores said some people have approached her in church to ask about the situation.

“It is really frustrating because I think people have a right to know,” she said. “I don’t like this being kept behind closed doors. It just really bothers me. The taxpayers have a right to know what’s going on.”

Osborne said he would usually comment on any town issue — except the administrator’s case, because the town charter forbids councilors from speaking about personnel matters.

“We have to abide by that,” he said. “People need to know what goes on in government and they have a right to know. ... Even the guy who casts the minority vote is bound by the entire council.”

Wetherbee said no Derry residents have approached him to ask about the matter. They realize it’s not an issue he can comment about, he said.

“I think people pretty much understand,” Wetherbee said.

Cathy Willis is chairman of the library trustees in Plaistow.

Willis said it’s not a board policy, but trustees usually refer calls to the chairman.

Trustees do so to be accurate in what they are presenting the public and to get the best answers to the community, she said.

“It’s just something we’ve always done,” Willis said. “The chairman knows more about what’s going on. That doesn’t mean other people won’t be involved.”

Seasoned board members are likely to respond to a question from the public or press, while newer members refer it to the chairman, she said.

“Nobody’s trying to hide anything,” Willis said.

Trustees might choose to defer public comment on a legal issue, she said.

“We’d probably want to get advice from legal counsel,” she said.

Adams acknowledges there can be situations, what he describes as “really dicey personnel matters,” potentially leading to lawsuits, that might require officials to be circumspect in their statements.

Pelham selectmen this summer presided over a rare public termination of a police officer.

The chief recommended his removal; the officer appealed to selectmen and asked them to hear the case in public.

Selectmen made clear they were acting as judges and would not comment about the specifics of the case, but did make people and the press aware of the hearing, discuss procedures and announce their decision.

Citizens deserve to have their questions answered in Adams’s view.

“When people have a legitimate question about, say, what’s going on in their school system, that should be answered,” he said. “People have a right to know.”

Some taxpayers are finding that’s not always the case, Adams said.

“They don’t get the answer they are looking for,” he said. “They get the old Washington two-step.”

Elected officials need to be accountable, Adams said.

“The people who are paying the bills need to know what’s going on,” he said.

“There needs to be accountability,” Eyring said. “You can only have accountability when you are responsible, ultimately, to the taxpayers.”

Eyring said he would give Windham officials high marks for the most part in responding to questions.

He also maintains appointed officials also need to be accountable, not just elected ones.

“When a public employee refuses to answer a question that is related to a service they are providing, I believe they violate a trust and an obligation that comes with their job,” Eyring said.

There’s something at stake for democracy when public officials are mum about the people’s business.

“We lose transparency of government,” Adams said.