Gove Steps Down as Head of Town Forest Advisory Committee

Freedom — September 7, 2006 — Katie Gove will step down from her position as chairman of the Freedom Forest Advisory Committee, and hopes that committee member Peter Schiller will take her place.

Gove made the announcement Tuesday night at a meeting of Freedom Conservation Commission, which she also chairs.

Gove’s chairmanship of both committees has been a point of contention with selectmen, who see it as a conflict of interest. Selectmen have also taken the position that a conservation commissioner should not chair the committee.

Gove said she is stepping down from the chiarmanship because of health reasons. She also said that she expects to step down from the conservation commission next spring for the same reasons.

All five conservation commissioners were present at the commission’s meeting Tuesday night. They voted to appoint advisory committee member Peter Schiller, who is the planning board representative to the committee, as the new chairman of the committee, if he is willing to assume the role. Gove said several committee members had commented that Schiller would be a good choice.

Gove said she would write a letter appointing Schiller as chairman, referencing her authority to do so from the town forest stewardship plan and state law (RSA 36 A:2).

A Second Opinion
In recent meetings between selectmen and the commission, selectmen have said they believe the advisory committee should elect its own officers, rather than having them appointed by the commission. The organization of the committee has been one of the points of contention as the three groups have debated their respective roles in managing the town forest, which the town bought last year.

Last week selectmen released a legal opinion from the town attorneys at Hastings Law Office, that indicated that final authority over the forest rested with the selectmen based on town warrant articles, the easement on the land and the forest’s stewardship management plan, but suggested that a town meeting vote would help clarify the matter.

Conservation Commissioners also recently received a different legal opinion from the New Hampshire Local Government Center over management authority for the forest. They released it this week, and it takes the position that selectmen have “no role in the functioning of the town forest.” The letter was sent to both the conservation commission and the selectmen.

The July 5 opinion from attorney Susan Slack, at the Local Government Center, referenced two warrant articles, from 2004 and 2005, designating the land as “town forest.” The 2004 article referenced RSA 31:112, and designated the conservation commission to manage it. The 2005 article authorized selectmen to apply for and receive grants for acquisition, mangement and stewardship of the property, to convey the easement and approve terms of the easement.

The letter goes on, “The stewardship plan states that the board of selectmen has sole discretion regarding management of the property. It also states that the conservation commission has the primary responsibility for managing the town forest but that the conservation commission is to be “overseen” by the board of selectmen. In addition, the stewardship plan states that at town forest advisory committee will be a standing subcommittee of the conservation commission and its purpose is to guide the conservation commission in its management of the town forest.”

Ultimately, she said, “In the case of a town forest, it is only the town’s legislative body (town meeting) that has authority to designate who will manage the property.” Under state law, she said there are two options for authority to manage the forest, a committee or the conservation commission.

“State law does not grant authority to the board of selectmen to manage a town forest.” If a future town meeting took authority away from the conservation commission, she wrote, “as RSA 21:112 requires, management would become the responsibility of a forestry committee.”

Slack concluded, “RSA 36-A:3 grants the selectmen authority to appoint the members of the conservation commission, although the selectmen have no authority to oversee the conservation commission’s management of the town forest, as the stewardship plan implies. In addition, the selectmen have a storng role in managing the town’s financial affairs and in recommending various appropriations to town meeting via the proposed operating budget and proposed warrant articles.” The Forest Advisory Committee’s next meeting is at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13, at Freedom Town Hall.

Hearing May Be Postponed
Freedom Selectmen have scheduled a public hearing next Monday on the removal of conservation commissioner Theresa Swanick. But at this point it seems unlikely that the hearing will take place.

Selectmen decided in July to remove Swanick from the commission, and sent her a letter to that effect. Swanick responded by requesting a public hearing, and one was scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 11, at town hall.

But since the hearing was scheduled, attorney Deborah Fauver, representing Swanick, has asked selectmen to postpone it and meet with Swanick in non-public session in an attempt to resolve the matter.

Attorney Peter Malia, representing the selectmen, said Tuesday that the selectmen had received the request and at this time it appears that they will grant it. “I expect selectmen to make a formal motion to continue the meeting and enter executive session with attorney Fauver and her client,” Malia said.

The majority of the selectmen are currently willing to grant the request, he said, although they cannot take a formal vote on the case until their next meeting, Sept. 11. There was no Freedom selectmen’s meeting this week, due to the Labor Day holiday.

In a July 20 letter notifying Swanick of her removal from the board, selectmen said she had grossly misrepresented a town document in a document she handed out to members of the Freedom Forest Advisory Board. About a week earlier, Swanick had been scheduled to give a presentation to the Forest Advisory Committee on the Stewardship Management Plan for the town’s Trout Pond property.

The letter further said, “This misrepresentation, compounded with the unauthorized distribution of said document to the members of the Forest Advisory Committee, is just cause for your removal from the Freedom Conservation Commission.”

The letter came after selectmen discussed the document with Swanick and other conservation commissioners at the weekly selectmen’s meeting July 17. According to the minutes of that meeting, selectmen were concerned about inaccuracies.

Although Swanick said that it was a “non-factual training document” and that the conservation commission had not reviewed it, selectmen said they were concerned because it was not labeled as a draft or training document, and that it was now a public document because it had been handed out at a public meeting.

In a statement later, Swanick said, “I have the utmost respect for the selectmen who are doing their best to carry out their duties in the best interests of the Town of Freedom and I continue to hope we can resolve this and work together,” she said. “We simply disagree about the issue of my handing out my discussion aid/summary. I was doing my best to do what I was asked to do and what I think the town would want me to do.”

Swanick said she took the selectmen’s advice to heart as good advice to a new town official (she was appointed to the commission in April), and said she hoped she could continue to serve the town.

“Ultimately this is not about me personally or any of us personally, we are all trying to set up the correct and best process that will endure into the future beyond us all,” she said.

When contacted on Tuesday, Selectmen Chairman Les Babb said he had been advised not to discuss the matter at this time.

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