Ossipee — February 23, 2018 — A lawyer defending the town of Ossipee from a lawsuit told a Carroll County Superior Court judge Thursday that selectmen agree with the plaintiffs that there was overcrowding at a special town meeting in November regarding the proposed purchase of a town beach. The attorney said the selectmen are committed to making sure that problem doesn’t happen again.
On Nov. 28, Ossipee residents were asked to vote on whether the town should purchase Dianne Sheehan’s Camp Sokokis property for use as a town beach. The purchase price was $1.2 million. The property consists of 53 acres with 200 feet of beach frontage, room for 40 parking spaces, and access to Route 16B from private Gretchen Road. Town officials said this would be their only chance to buy a beach on the lake.
The proposal received a 297-171 majority vote, but it required a two-thirds majority to pass.
A civil complaint was filed by Joy Gagnon and Joshua Arnold in Carroll County Superior Court on Dec. 27. Essentially, their complaint was that the town hall space wasn’t large enough to handle all the people who wanted to get in and that many were kept from participating. Gagnon and Arnold had wanted the judge to allow for a revote, but conceded in court Thursday that was a moot point because the land recently was sold to a third party. But the plaintiffs wanted to ensure that the town of Ossipee comes up with a better plan to address large town meeting turnouts.
In court on Thursday, Ossipee town attorney Richard Sager presented a draft order to the court and the plaintiffs. It admitted there was an issue with how the vote went.
“The town admits the overcrowding at the Nov. 28 special meeting, although an aberration never before seen at such a townwide meeting, needs to be addressed in hope of avoiding any such situation in the future,” said Sager’s draft order.
“The selectmen plan to look into the situation for solutions to the causes of the problems. As part of the board of selectmen’s action, it will consider establishing a committee to seek solutions and to make recommendations to the board.”
As part of that effort, the town would look at issues such as the ingress, egress, seating, availability of other venues, parking and use of video for teleconferencing. Then he offered to have the matter reviewed by the court in six months.
Gagnon replied to Sager’s proposed order by saying she wanted the language to be tightened up.
“The wording doesn’t seem solid enough,” said Gagnon, adding they would like the the selectmen to commit to establishing the committee rather just considering it. But Gagnon said she liked the idea of having a court hearing in six months.
Arnold said the town shouldn’t assume that not many people are going to show up for town meetings just because historically turnouts have been low in the past.
“One of the things I really value about being in New Hampshire is the opportunity to be so civically involved,” said Arnold.
“I’d like the bar to be that there is a way for every single registered voter to participate in town meeting…We have to be creative to figure that out.”
Sager said he would work on tightening the draft order and then would email it by the end of next week to Gagnon and Arnold. He stressed that selectmen are going to take action but he didn’t know whether they would look into it themselves or form a committee.
Regardless, “something is going to happen,” said Sager.
Judge Ignatius agreed to schedule a review hearing in August or September. She said if the parties are satisfied, the hearing could be canceled.
She thought Arnold made a good point.
“It’s a remarkable thing about this state that we get everybody together in a room, those who show up, and have debates about everything from as tiny as filling a pothole to large debates about significant policy issues,” said Ignatius. “I like your idea (that you) shouldn’t just assume people aren’t going to show up.”
As for the town of Ossipee vs. Diane Sheehan, Sager said that it seems to be heading towards a resolution. Issues like attorneys fees are apparently still on the table.
Earlier this month, Ignatius had denied the town an injunction to prevent Sheehan from selling the property to a third party. The Carroll County Independent reported that the third party, Paul Fitts and John Seda, who were intervenors in the town’s case, purchased the property for $1.2 million, according to a deed filed Feb. 8.