CLAREMONT — The newly elected city council made major changes to the appointment and make up of city planning board members after a council-majority determined the city’s approach didn’t comply with state law.
On Wednesday, Jan. 22, the Claremont City Council voted 6-3 to rescind a policy passed by the 2008 city council to alleviate confusion about the city’s compliance with state legislation regarding the appointment and structure of local planning boards.
Under the new council’s action, the mayor’s ex-officio seat on the planning board will transfer to the city manager or city manager’s designee, who will also serve as an ex-officio member. One city councilor will continue to serve on the board, and one councilor as an alternate, both as ex-officio members. The remaining seven members will be selected by the city council.
The council picked up this discussion following confusion about whether the city policy for appointing planning board members was in compliance with state statute.
In 2008, the city council adopted an appointment policy in accordance with NH RSA 673:2, regarding local planning boards. Importantly, the state statute describes two possible planning board structures for city governments. The first set of guidelines for a nine-member planning board consists of six voting members and three ex-officio members: the city mayor, one city councilor, and a city administrator, appointed by the mayor.
But the statute describes an “alternative” structure for a “city council-city manager form of government, with seven voting members, one city councilor and — instead of the mayor — the city manager or a city manager’s designee.
Councilor Deborah Matteau said that the New Hampshire Municipal Association (NHMA) recommended that Claremont follow the alternative structure.
While the language in the statute is not entirely clear whether Claremont must follow the alternative guidelines, Matteau said she felt it better to give that ex-officio seat to the city manager.
“The planning board is a very powerful board in this city and as CEO of our city, the city manager should sit on that board,” Matteau said. “And I’m not in favor of the mayor sitting on that board because, as a voting member, the mayor is the appointing official. So, for the mayor to appoint everyone on that board and have a vote, I think is too much power for one person.”
Councilor Andrew O’Hearne agreed with Matteau. O’Hearne said that he disagreed with the 2008 council’s interpretation of the statute, which appears to imply that the mayor would only serve on the planning board under a mayoral-led government, such as Manchester’s model.
O’Hearne motioned for the council to rescind the 2008 council’s decision and adopt the state’s guidelines for the alternative structure.
Mayor Charlene Lovett, Assistant Mayor Allen Damren and Councilor Abigail Kier objected to making a change at the council level without sending it to the Policy Committee for careful review.
“Whether I sit on the planning board or not is irrelevant to me,” Lovett said. “My concern is what’s best for the city. This isn’t just about the mayor, but the make up of the other member. Do you want six residents or seven? Do you want an ex-officio from the city or one selected by the mayor? The conversation should be the best composition for the city.”
Damren said he opposed the council rushing to change the policy without more research and motioned to table the discussion.
The council voted down the motion to table by a vote of 5-4. Voting in the majority were Councilors O’Hearne, Matteau, James Contois, Nicholas Koloski and Jonathan Stone. Lovett, Damren, Kier and Councilor Erica Sweetser voted in the minority.
Several councilors, including Matteau and Koloski, opposed sending the issue to the policy committee, saying that council already had a sufficient legal opinion from the NHMA.
“I’m concerned about getting more legal opinions,” Matteau said. “The NHMA has given us its legal opinion. The statute is pretty clear to me what the legal intent is. I worry that we spend a lot of money at committee level on legal opinions.”
Koloski said that the council should be deciding what legal opinion to follow, not the Policy Committee. Additionally, he worried that sending this to committee would result in lengthy delay, when the council should rectify the issue promptly.
At the start of the discussion, City Manager Ed Morris said he contact former city attorney Jane Taylor about the council’s 2008. Taylor informed Morris that she interpreted the state statute to provide Claremont the flexibility to follow either set of guidelines.
Koloski disagreed with Taylor’s interpretation, saying that her legal interpretation does not take the city charter into account, which defines the city mayor as an honorary title and the role is equal to that of a city councilor.
The city municipal code will need to be updated to be in accordance with the new policy change. The council came to learn, during the course of discussion, that the code was out of date with the 2008 council’s policy as well. The municipal code says that the council appoints residents to the planning board, whereas the 2008 policy gave that authority to the mayor.
The city council also voted to designate the entire council the role to appoint planning board members.
In a related decision, Damren said that he will give up his ex-officio seat on the planning board to Contois, who had served on the board as a resident prior to his election to the council. Koloski will serve as the council alternate member.