Letter of support for NEC creates Right-to-Know confusion

  • Students walk through campus between classes at New England College in Henniker on Jan. 27. A letter of support written by the chairman of the Henniker select board on a proposal to construct a performing arts center on campus has been met with criticism by other members of the board. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

  • Students walk through campus in between classes at New England College in Henniker on Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Monday, April 03, 2017

When a New England College vice president asked the chair of the Henniker select board for quick help sending a town letter supporting the construction of a new performing arts center on campus, Kris Blomback didn’t hesitate.

Within an hour, at 2:44 p.m. on March 15, a Wednesday, Blomback emailed the other four members and asked if they supported him signing the letter on behalf of the board.

“If I don’t hear from you by Thursday evening, I assume you have no objections,” he wrote.

It turns out at least one member of the select board did have an objection and Blomback didn’t wait until Thursday night to hear back from the others.

At 10:02 a.m. on Thursday, March 16, Blomback sent the signed document on town letterhead back to New England College, which would be forwarded to the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of a loan application.

“Please be advised the Town on Henniker Selectboard, by majority vote, supports the application which has been submitted to USDA Rural Development by New England College,” Blomback wrote.

Blomback forwarded the letter to New England College Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Paula Amato with the message “let me know if we can support you guys in any other way.”

There were some problems right out of the gate.

The select board hadn’t met or taken any vote in support of the application as Blomback said.

Blomback had also just been warned an hour earlier by select board member Ben Fortner that his email chain was likely in violation of the Right to Know law and he did not have the authority to sign the letter on behalf of the board without a vote at a “properly noticed public meeting.”

Furthermore, Blomback’s letter said the police and fire departments would be unaffected by the project, as would the town’s water, sewer, and educational systems. Yet he never contacted any of them to ask.

It turns out, Blomback, the town’s attorney and the USDA were unconcerned.

Pollaidh Major, spokesperson for the USDA’s Rural Development Vermont and New Hampshire division, said Blomback’s method would not affect how the department would evaluate that portion of the application. She said it was up to each town to complete the document according to what they believe a select board can speak for.

“When we receive the document, we assume that the town has followed its local procedures with regards to who has the ability to speak for the project’s impact on the various community assets cited in the letter,” she said.

The town’s attorney, Barton Mayer, advised that the email chain between the select board did, in fact, constitute a Right to Know violation; however, “to cure that violation, the emails and a discussion and vote, ‘ratifying’ Kris’s signature on the community support document should resolve that problem,” Mayer wrote in an email to the town administrator. Mayer went on to agree that the select board has the authority to approve the document, after a vote is taken.

Mayer did not respond to a phone call for comment.

As for Blomback, he said he was just trying to help the town’s biggest employer and that a healthy NEC can only help the town. He said the letter merely means the town supports the building project.

“At the end of the day, if someone is proposing to build a performing arts center, and the town doesn’t have anything like this, and they’re the town’s biggest supporter, wouldn’t you support this?” said Blomback, who is also general manager of Pats Peak Ski Area in Henniker.

Blomback later added: “If I had to do this all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing ... I’m trying to move the town forward, move economic development forward, and if people have an issue with how the select board was in support of a project, so be it.”

At least two of the town’s department heads – Norm Bumford, superintendent of the Cogswell Spring Waterworks and Henniker police chief Matt French – said they had never heard of the project before this week.

Henniker Fire and Rescue chief Steve Burritt said he couldn’t specifically remember if he had talked to Blomback about the college’s project, but that it was possible because they talk frequently. Wastewater superintendent Ken Levesque said he had heard of the project but referred all other questions to Town Administrator Christine Trovato.

Blomback said in an interview he did not go to the town’s department heads to discuss any impact the project could have on the town in part because the 350-seat performing arts center is still in the design stage and hadn’t been discussed in a public meeting. He said what he wrote in the letter was based on his view that there would be no undue harsh impact on the town and that the letter does not mean the project has been approved through the permitting process.

New England College Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Paula Amato, who sent the initial email to Blomback, alerted him that time was of the essence. Amato said she needed the document before she submitted the application, which was due that week. She went on to say she had previously thought the document could be provided after the application was submitted, hence the short notice.

Amato said in an interview the letter Blomback sent was based off a template provided by the USDA. And, she said the building would not be too taxing on the town’s resources.

“When you think about the type of building it is, there’s going to be very little requirements with the facilities,” she said. “There’s water and sewer, electrical services right there. They just have to be brought into the building.”

At the March 21 board meeting, select board member Ben Fortner requested the letter be pulled from the consent agenda to be discussed. Minutes show members Tia Hooper and Bob French gave verbal support of the letter prior to the meeting. Consent agenda items are usually reserved for issues that are deemed noncontroversial and can be voted on without discussion if the board agrees to it, according to Fortner. 

“I was very surprised to see it there,” he said. “I just took action I thought was appropriate.”

After some discussion, the board approved the letter unanimously, 5-0.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

This article has been changed to reflect the proper name of Henniker police chief Matt French.