Freedom Selectmen Claim Authority Over New Town Forest

Freedom — August 31, 2006 — Freedom selectmen have decided to take the position that the selectmen, conservation commissioners and Freedom Forest Advisory Committee should manage the Trout Pond property along the guidelines set out by selectmen’s attorneys Peter Malia and David Hastings.

The document gives some power to each of the boards, but says ultimate authority rests with selectmen.

According to the letter, signed by Malia, the groups have independent functions, but he suggested a “staggered relationship.” Under this, he said, the advisorty committee would be “the eyes, ears and consultant for all these groupson the day-to-day management of Trout Pond. It would develop projects, establish a budget, initiate and complete projects, oversee maintenance and with the conservation commission write an annual report. Further, he said the conservation commission exists to manage all town forests. It would review the committee’s proposed budget and projects, and recommend them to the selectmen.

Malia wrote the board of selectmen, “is the ultimate determiner of any projects proposed, rules and regulations, budgetary expenses and actual expenditures regarding Trout Pond. This does not mean the board of selectmen has the authority to initiate any project or expenditure, but rather to respond either affirmatively or negatively to the matters that have been proposed to the board of selectmen from the Freedom Conservation Commission.”

Malia and Hastings said they believe the Stewardship plan and a town meeting vote in 2005 override a 2004 vote and give ultimate authority to selectmen. Malia noted that attorney Susan Slack disagreed that the 2004 vote was overridden. All three attorneys recommend that it would be appropriate to place an article for the 2007 meeting to clarify the authority. Until then Malia recommended following the procedure outlined in the letter.

Confusion Over Authority
Last week, several members of the Freedom Conservation Commission attended the selectmen’s meeting to discuss who has the final authority over management of the Trout Pond land. Donna Cupka said the board had scheduled a meeting with Commission Chairman Katie Gove.

“It ended up a meeting with the FCC.”

At that meeting, selectmen said they would set up a meeting with all the original members who were on the stewardship committee to discuss it. Selectman Les Babb said he contacted different people after the meeting with commissioners last week. Babb said, “I was disturbed in the meeting that there was a lot of quotes of what Roger [Cruzman of the trust for Public Lands] had told them. I called Roger Tuesday and was enlightened to the fact that a lot of what we were told on Monday did not actually come from Roger.”

“Roger found it amusing. He reiterated the fact that the stewardship document is a support document for the easement, which must be followed. That is the legal document that must be followed. The state doesn’t care which body does it,” he said.

Babb said if the town had bought the forest with town funds and there was no easement, it would be the authority of the conservation commission to manage.

“My opinion right now is that we don’t bother to hold a meeting, joint meeting. We gave them an outline that our attornies drew up for them to follow and that should be the final say,” Babb said.

Cupka Wants Team Effort
Cupka read a prepared statement with her thoughts on the issue. She said, “After reading and re-reading all of the info that has been presented to me and that I have researched, I finally feel as though I have developed an understanding of this situation. We have many RSA’s documents and warrant articles giving each of the three entities (FAC, FCC and BOS) some managing duties of the Trout Pond Property…It is because we all have a responsibility to manage this property in the best interest of the town that we all need to work together to make this happen.

This is why I feel that the methodology put forth by Attorney Malia and Attorney Hastings, which was based upon the stewardship, is the best way to manage the Trout Pond Property. The document is currently not in need of any change or amendments either. This document needs to be used as it is written. It is only after it has been used, successfully or unsuccessfully that we can make any suggested amendments to make it better.” Although there are gray areas, she said, each board has some part to play. “We are fortunate to have checks and balances in place. No one entity should have the power to rule the Trout Pond Property. A team effort must be put forth; this property is too massive for just one entity to handle alone.”

Selectman Jim Breslin said he has been involved in advisory committee meetings and read the stewardship plan. Breslin said, “It is clear to me the document designed to be authority on how to address the easement and manage the property on a long term basis for the benefit of people of town of Freedom. The ultimate decision making rest with the elected officials of the town of Freedom. Day to day operating entity is the Forest Advisory Committee working with Freedom Conservation Commission. However neither of those two committees are elected an therefore not responsible directly to the people of the town.”

Babb said he agreed with Cupka’s remarks and said the boards should move forward under the guidelines suggested by their attorneys. He said that the easement is the final authority, and said, “If you look at the easement who have to sign it. Not the conservation commission.” It was signed by the selectmen.

Follow or Leave
Cupka made a motion that “the methodology set forth in an Aug. 18 letter from selectmen’s attorneys Malia and Hastings [a copy of which which had been given to the commissioners on Aug. 21] “be the methodology that the three boards have to follow.”

Cupka said the members of the conservation commission and forest advisory committee have two choices. Members can follow the methodology, or they can leave the boards. “It’s an appointed board. You can step down,” she said.

Freedom Forest Advisory Committee member Steve Jones said he came to the selectmen’s meeting Monday to find out what was going on. “I am a member of the forest advisory board and I didn’t know there was a meeting last week,” he said. “I was on the original stewardship committee that wrote the bylaws and I was not upset that what was going on was going on. The conflict between the selectmen and the conservation commission has to be straightened out because we’ve had meeting after meeting and there was nothing done.”

“Somebody stated that the selectmen having ultimate control over the property was put in at the 11th hour,” Jones said. “That’s not true at all. I was on that committee It was early in the thing.”

Jones referred back to minutes of old conservation commission meetings, and said the commission recognized it was important to determine who was in charge of management.

“We had the discussion and we all voted on it and it was decided to be written the way it was written,” he said. The group voted, he said, on “What authority will FCC have to change the stewardship plan? And it was none. They’re not supposed to be able to go in and just change what is done.” He said the forest advisory committee today just wants to move on.

Selectman and fellow forest advisory committee member Jim Breslin agreed. “We just want to move on and move on and work with people.” Cupka also said she believes it is incompatible for Gove to Chair both the conservation commission and the forest advisory committee (which is a subcommittee of the commission).

Although the dispute has the potential of ending up in court, Cupka said, “This board is not interested in spending taxpayers dollars to take that board to court. Let’s hope it can be resolved so it doesn’t have the look of being improper.”

More Commissioners?
Jones asked selectmen, “Can the board of selectmen ask or take somebody off the Freedom Conservation Commission?”

Babb said, “Yes, for cause.”

“How many are on the FCC and how many are supposed to be?” Jones asked.

“Five or seven,” Babb replied. There are currently five board members.

Since the selectmen appoint conservation commissioners, Jones suggested selectmen appoint two more members.

“Well take that under advisement,” Cupka said.

Jones asked if committee members have a right to force a vote on issues.

Babb said any committee member has a right to make a motion, and a motion once made and seconded, must be acted upon.

ATV club member Lisa Charrette, who presented a proposal for club trails on the property in July said her proposal is being stonewalled. She said she was invited by the committee to bring more information about the project to a work session of the forest advisory committee in August, but when when she went, she said, chairman Katie Gove told her that she would not be heard that night.

“I was told I would not be on the agenda,” she said.

“I think it would be wise to bring it up at the next meeting and reschedule a work session,” Breslin said.

“I think it’s important that you show up as citizen and be prepared. We’ll be working on setting another work session,” Jones said.

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