September 10, 2010

State objects to charter changes, council must act before Election Day

Discrepancy over when the final draft of the revised charter was sent to the State Attorney General's Office

Union Leader Correspondent

DERRY – Town officials were notified yesterday by the state Attorney General's office that proposed Charter amendments, which were already on the ballot for Tuesday's election, are illegal and don't line up with state law.
“We're meeting to discuss voting to remove the charter question from the ballot,” said Council Chair Brad Benson, yesterday, hours after scheduling an emergency Council meeting for today at 8 a.m. in the Cable 17 room at the municipal center.
“The Attorney General sent a letter indicating that there are changes in the charter that don't conform with state standards. The timing is awful, and speaks to a process problem that exists between municipalities and the state,” said Benson.
Town Administrator Gary Stenhouse yesterday was trying to put the matter into perspective without dwelling on how the process was bungled.
“Rather than pointing fingers, I do believe the commission proceeded properly, and I'm not laying blame on the state. My understanding is that once the final draft was submitted, the Charter Commission heard nothing back from the state,” Stenhouse said.
That, according to the state, is because it was never received.
“I called the Attorney General's office at some point in July, because I had some questions about what I saw as inconsistencies in the charter proposal with the state statute. The state told me to put my concerns in writing. A short time later, they got back to us saying they never got a final draft of the charter,” Stenhouse said.
Town Clerk Denise Neale rushed a copy of the proposed charter to the state offices, which were received on August 6.
Based on a review of that copy, the state raised objections to at least a dozen of the proposed changes.
If the charter had been seen by the state in a timely manner, objections would have come to light long before now. Stenhouse said after talking with Neale, Charter Commission Chair Jim MacEachern, and Assistant Attorney General Anthony Blenkinsop, there are lingering discrepancies about what was sent when, and whether documents were received. None of that changes the fact that what's done is done.
Or not done.
The lack of a process to acknowledge receipt of a charter proposal is part of the problem, said Benson.
“The state is not obligated to reply – it's more a matter of if you don't hear then everything's OK,” Benson said. “Only everything's not OK. I think part of the problem is that there's no conclusion to the process – no way for a town to know that the charter has been received and approved by the state.”
Stenhouse said the state is offering to work with the town to resolve the issues – some amendments needing explanation, and others needing fine tuning.
“The state has given us a clear blueprint of what needs to be done,” Stenhouse said.

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