Editorial: Bragdon must choose one job or the other
In February, the embattled Local Government Center, the quasi-governmental operator of trusts that provide health and property insurance to municipalities, hired former state economic development commissioner George Bald to lead it out of a structural and regulatory swamp of its own creation. He was also hired to make the group’s actions transparent and resolve a $50 million battle over alleged overcharges.
Bald led the municipal officials who run the LGC to within view of the road to the restoration of public trust and the resolution of legal problems. But this week, when it chose Senate President Peter Bragdon as its leader, the LGC’s board turned and splashed back into the murky swamp. It deserves to lose the public’s trust.
There is no way that Bragdon, an amiable and effective lawmaker, can credibly separate his role as Senate president from his role as the head of a large, publicly funded organization whose business often involves lobbying for and against legislation. We don’t question Bragdon’s abilities, honesty or integrity. It’s simply that the two roles can’t be separated to a degree that’s reasonable or credible.
The LGC, as a result of years of legal battles with the secretary of state’s Bureau of Securities Regulation, was ordered to split into separate entities with separate boards of directors. The group did so, after a fashion. The reorganization set to take effect Sept. 1 would essentially dissolve the LGC as an umbrella organization, leaving four separate nonprofits: its real estate trust, the HealthTrust, the Property-Liability Trust and the New Hampshire Municipal Association, an organization that lobbies legislators heavily on behalf of its member governments.
Bragdon promises to recuse himself when any matters involving the LGC and its trusts come up and perhaps even any matter that involves public risk pools like those the center operates. But the Senate president sets the agenda, determines when and if bills are considered, appoints senators to committees and wields influence, spoken or unspoken, over them. He plays a critical role in determining the budget of the agency that regulates the LGC. His role as the head of so powerful an organization could not help but influence the vote in matters senators believed important to him or his employer.
Consider too, the structure of the organizations involved. Bragdon’s bosses, the five members of the LGC’s board of directors, are all local officials. Thomas Enright, a Hollis-Brookline school board member, chairs the board. Its other four members are Peter Chamberlin, Wolfeboro’s finance director; Stephen Fournier, Newmarket’s town administrator; Karen Liot Hill, a Lebanon city councilor; and Edmund Jansen, a Rollinsford selectman.
Of the five, only Chamberlin serves in a single capacity. Three of the five members – Fournier, Jansen and Hill – are also directors of the municipal association. That means a majority of Bragdon’s bosses at the LGC are on the board of the lobbying organization that shares the same building, an organization that felt obliged to issue a press release to announce that it has been a “totally separate and independent organization” from the LGC since January.
New Hampshire has a citizen legislature of lawmakers paid $100 per year. Most own companies or hold jobs that can be influenced for good or ill by legislation that comes before them. To avoid conflicts of interest ,or the appearance of conflict, lawmakers typically recuse themselves, as Bragdon has offered to do. But the Senate presidency is different. So too, is the job Bragdon has accepted. It is not like that of a small business owner who serves in the Senate. It’s more akin to the Senate being led by the head of Public Service of New Hampshire, Northern Pass or Millennium Gaming.
“No man can serve two masters,” the Good Book says. Bragdon should either give up his new job or the Senate presidency.