Sunday, October 7, 2012

Court battles take toll

Legal costs add up against town budgets

 By Garrett Brnger Sentinel Staff
WINCHESTER — Small-town politics can come with a big price tag.
The town of Winchester has spent a considerable amount of time and money in recent years dealing with legal cases — 2.1 percent of last year’s operating expenses. While one nearby town has spent more and another much less on legal expenses, Winchester is unique due to the variety of its cases.

Winchester spent $63,038 in fiscal 2012 on legal expenses — the majority of it on court battles. Between fiscal 2009 and 2011, it spent $50,190, $39,436 and $34,866, respectively.

Town Administrator Joan C. Morel estimates only about $8,000 of the 2012 sum was spent on costs unrelated to court cases, such as appraisals or legal advice.

This year looks to be no different. The town’s legal expenses are up to $12,419 since its fiscal year began in July. The budgeted amount approved by voters is $25,000 for the entire year.

In the 2011 calendar year, Swanzey spent $15,390 in legal expenses. The town has almost 2,900 more residents than Winchester and its budget this year of $7.2 million is almost twice that of Winchester’s. Since January, Swanzey has spent $9,723 on legal costs.
However, Swanzey Town Administrator Shane O’Keefe said the expenses are “entirely unpredictable” and occur incidentally.

Richmond is an example of that. In 2006, Winchester’s neighbor to the east spent $7,565 on legal expenses out of a a budgeted $4,900. Five years later in 2011, the town spent $70,398 — more than nine times that amount. In 2010, it spent $50,761.

A handful of cases each year cause the majority of the expenses, said Richmond Town Administrator Roberta A. Fraser, who is also chairwoman of the Winchester Selectmen.

Though Fraser did not have a bottom-line number for Richmond’s court battles from 2007 to 2011 with the St. Benedict’s Center, she said it’s “safe to say the number is in the tens of thousands.”

A reassessment fight with Public Service Co. of New Hampshire in 2011 and ’12 cost the town $45,740, not including the $11,781 settlement. It also contributed to both the preceding year’s sum and the $24,044 Richmond has spent on legal costs since January.

The difference between Richmond and Winchester is the number of cases, Fraser said. While Fraser estimates Richmond has about a half-dozen cases a year, Winchester, which has a population about four times as large, has 17 cases on its 2012 legal calendar.

Winchester does have a strong record in court. Neither Morel nor the town’s attorney, Bart L. Mayer, could remember a case in which the town did not prevail. But Morel says they all cost money.
“We do ask for legal fees; we haven’t been granted any,” Morel said.
Some cases in Winchester are filed by the town to enforce zoning codes and ordinances such as trash-filled yards, but this year the town is the defendant in a majority of cases.

Defendant or plaintiff, the cases in Winchester and Richmond often have some common features, Fraser said.

Winchester resident Terrance P. Qualters has been involved in nine cases against the town since 1981, said a clerk at the Cheshire County Superior Court.
The town has taken several properties from Qualters due to back taxes, and has taken him to court to remove him from the properties. However, Qualters has fought the town on each step because he believes the town government is corrupt.
“I don’t like this town (government) of Winchester one single bit,” Qualters said.

The town is such a popular adversary, it has even faced itself. This year the town almost had $419,000 in spending disallowed because selectmen filed suit against the budget committee.

Although the case was settled through a consent decree, it still required the town to pay for two lawyers.
In some cases, the town gets blamed no matter what happens. For example, both the applicant and opponents of a proposed Dunkin’ Donuts in Winchester have brought the town to court over the same project.

When the Winchester Zoning Board granted S.S. Baker Realty a zoning variance in 2008 for a proposed combination convenience store, gas station and Dunkin’ Donuts, local grocery store Kulick’s Inc. appealed the decision. The case reached the N.H. Supreme Court, which upheld the board’s decision in September 2010.

The town is back in court over the same project now, but against S.S. Baker, which is appealing the Winchester Planning Board’s rejection of the project.

Kulick’s owner, Stanley S. Plifka Jr. is not surprised by the volume of legal action the town sees.
Winchester is filled with cliques and personalities who clash, Plifka said, and “with the decisions the town makes, they’re lucky they don’t get sued more than that.”

That extends to officials in town government. In March 2011, planning board member Kim N. Gordon filed an affidavit in a case against the town alleging then-board Chairwoman Margaret Sharra had acted inappropriately during an asphalt plant application.

As a result, selectmen considered removing Gordon from the board but ultimately did not. Gordon filed a right-to-know suit against the town afterward, alleging she should have been allowed to attend a non-public meeting in which selectmen considered a letter from its legal counsel.

Gordon was unsuccessful in both the right-to-know request and her attempt to get the town to pay her legal fees from the selectmen’s deliberations.

Sharra, who is now the town land use administrator, said the appeal process for land use cases can be frustrating but does not begrudge people who use it. She just wants them to think twice about filing suit against the town.


when will it change? said...

I'm am confused...
According to friends, this blog and Kim Gordon herself I was told she won her court cases and was "Vindicated" in her own words on Facebook.
this does not seem to be the case.
I think this makes a perfect example of what "word on the street" will get you, inaccurate information.
It will be interesting to see just how she is included in this new law suit against the planning board for their wrong decision in protecting Plifkas attempt to be a monopoly in this town.
The best thing about news paper reports and court documents is there is no word on the street just accurate information.
This may be the first time I am glad someone is taking the town to court, This whole Dunkin Donuts rejection was a bad deal for all of us.

Anonymous said...

Plifka the hypocrite. He files bogus appeals to preserve his monopoly on overpriced food and gas, and then says the town pays too much for legal fees. What a joke.

Mike Towne said...

Would seem that both Joan Morell, who hasn't been here very long and Barton Mayer either don't know what they are talking about, or both have very short or selective memories.
For example: In the matter of Towne, Homan et al vs. Town of Winchester Planning Board, judge Tucker ruled in favor of the Plaintiff's and sent the unlawful and erroneous decision made by Larry Hill and company back to the board for a rehearing based on his findings of wrong doing by Margaret Sharra in the matter of the Van Dyke sub-division. An appeal was filed and denied by the board because of information provided to them by margaret Sharra. The Plaintiffs provided proof to the court that Sharra was having exparte' communications with Van Dyke, the DES and others and using information gotten during these illegal conversation, influenced the Planing Board's decisions in several matters.It's all in the records, her wrong doings are documented and despite being asked to recuse herself from meetings by the Plaintiff's attorney, she and other members of the board; Larry Hill, Gus Ruth, Dean Beaman and Princess Blodgett, insisted she did no wrong and did not have to remove herself. It took a lawsuit and a judge's decision to get her to do what was right. Goes to show that those members still sitting on the board today that were involved in this lawsuit don't know squat and are the main reasons suits continue to get filed at an alarming and costly rate.

Anonymous said...

I personally know Kim & am a friend on facebook - the first poster comments are a complete fabrication!

Anonymous said...

What about all your other bogus lawsuits Mike that have been thrown out? You too are responsible for our legal fees spent. Step in line with Plifka and stand up.

Mike Towne said...

Easy to hide behind the anonymous feature isn't it?
What bogus lawsuits have I personally filed know it all?

The suit against the Planning Board was filed by several of us affected by their bad decisions and illegal activity by it's Chairperson, you call that bogus?

In the end, after countless hearings, lawsuits and a DES decision, Van Dyke was shut down and fined and his application was finally denied in 2010. If it weren't for the meddling by Margaret Sharra, who intervened on his behalf with a bogus reconsideration hearing a year earlier overturning Jack Marshe's denial of the Van Dyke application, no lawsuit would have ever been filed. So go blame Sharra for what happened, not those of us who stood up for our rights and were right in doing so.

When you have members on a board, who disregard regulations, state statutes and and proper procedures, then you will have a well worn pathway to the courtroom steps, which is exactly what this town has now. When you keep electing the same people to the same positions year after year the results will be more lawsuits. There have been 13 suits filed this year, I suppose in your eyes those are bogus too.

Anonymous said...

Ahh let me think Mike??? Perhaps the Asphalt company lawsuit comes to mind most recently. Or was that the other Mike Towne?

Pas Man

Mike Towne said...

Once again you miss the point. I am part of a group of over 100 citizens affected by the decision to allow this plant to operate in our protected aquifer district. Over 100 families are subjected to pollution, noise and harmful particulates in the air, ruining the enjoyment of our properties and homes. That I am an abutter to the property the plant sits on and am affected by it's operation as is my wife, we joined the suit. Despite all of the evidence presented to the members of the Planning Board that these plants are harmful to the health and well being of people and wild life living in close proximity and that there are numerous studies to prove these facts, they did not listen. They also did not follow their own regulations when they back tracked on the conditions they set for the approval of this application and gave Mitchell the ok to go ahead. I did not file alone. I did not hire the attorney representing the group. Get your facts straight before you open your mouth and comment on things you know nothing about. There are enough people in this town that misrepresent the truth already and speak of things they know nothing about.

Anonymous said...

Stepping in to join in the conversation between Mike and the Pas Man. But Mike, wasnt your law suit thrown out of Court? So you did not win, the town spent a lot of money to defend its actions, and you don't consider this a waste. Your position was not upheld and it cost us tax money to defend against your law suit because either you screwed up or the case had no merit. You are no different than the all the other BS lawsuits that are filed just to delay projects and increasing our tax base. Enough said.

Bill H.

Mike Towne said...

Why don't you and Pas Man and the rest of the idiots that can't read, take a ride up to the court house and look up the case and stop your bs. The case did not get thrown out, a rehearing was ordered and Sharra was ordered to recuse herself for breaking the law.

The case was Towne, Homan et all vs. Town of Winchester Planning Board.

Eight abutters to a project that was not only eventually shut down by the Planning Board for wetlands violations but also by the DES who found him in violation of the following statutes, something the board continued to overlook until an order to cease and desist was issued by the State for violations of RSA 482-A:6, RSA 482-A 17: and RSA 482-A:22 and fined. Are these the types of businesses you want to come to Winchester? Contractors who violate the law all in the name of the almighty dollar, who knowingly and willingly violate the law just for profit and who destroy wetlands and without regard alter the course of a natural waterway onto someone else's property flooding it and covering it with inches of run-off sediment? Once again, before people know the facts they should stay away from their keyboards and keep their opinions to themselves.

Ken G. said...

Bravo to Mr. Towne and the others who stood up for their rights and battled for justice. Just think what we'd be facing now if that Van Dyke had his way? What was it 30 - 40 three bedroom condominiums or something like that? Imagine what it would have done to our school budget and the strain on the towns police and fire departments if something happened out there? I remember all of the stories in the paper and the rumors coming out of town hall while this was going on.Remember none of this court stuff would have gone on if a certain member of the board hadn't acted in the manner she did. looks like Larry Hill is just following in her footsteps as he too has just admitted having meetings with the Dunkin Donuts people outside of regular meetings. No wonder the town gets sued all the time, none of them acts appropriately and why should they? It's our money they use to defend themselves, so what do they care? Those few who continue to act unlawfully need to be voted out.

Anonymous said...

For those of you that want the real story on the asphalt plant here it is. The plant was orignally planned to go on Route 10 near Burt Hill. If the plant had gone there it would have affected Kathy Beaman's sisters. Kathy obtained an attorney (Mr. Silas Little) to represent the landowners on Burt Hill and Mr. Mitchell was persuaded to look elsewhere.

People before you condemn Mr. Towne and the others in this law suit perhaps you should speak to the Beamans about their influence on this decision.

Anonymous said...

With all these legal costs, does anyone know where the $18,000 came from to hire a firm to investigate the police department? Does anyone know the results of the investigation?

Ralph G. said...

Ya, the Beaman's with their go to gal Sharra have ruined things for a lot of people in this town. I hope Mr. Towne and that group from Swanzey prevail and shut that guy down, what a mess out there and I can imagine the noise those people are being subjected to. It's a shame we have people in this town that think they are so much better than everyone else because they have money.

the Winchester Informer said...

To: October 13, 2012 4:08 PM

In regards to $18,000 in funds used to investigate our own Police Dept. One can only assume, as there was no mention of this in the BOS minutes though taxpayer funds were used, it was money shuffled out of one dept budget or perhaps the General Fund. Once again, there is no transparency when it comes to using taxpayer money for behind the scenes BOS spending. Are these really the people you want holding the towns purse strings year after year?

speaking of money said...

Attention selectboard, check out today's Sentinel, under, world news. Seniors' benefits to rise,But SS recipients still feel squeezed. A 3% cost of living for town employees may not be out of line, but the fixed income people in your town are going to get a 1.5% TO 1.7% increase only. Medical care costs alone jumped 4.1%, and with food and gas continuing to rise we don't stand much of a chance when it comes to staying financially stable.

Anonymous said...

speaking of money

You can also look at the fact that many of us who are still working have gone with no raises in awhile some people are actually making less and working harder. Seems some company's may actually benefit from a lagging economy, it gives them a great excuse to tell their employees sorry cant give you a raise just feel lucky you have a job! How many of you have seen a co worker laid off but then you do your job and theirs for the same money? How many have seen employees with years of experiance witch means higher pay and better benefits let go so some kid just out of college gets hired to do the same job for 1/2 the pay and vacation time etc.

Financial Parity said...

Cost of living is for them , not us. That is par for the course when it comes to who counts in the town of Winchester. People that produce little towards the economic well being, seem to be rewarded the most.

Anonymous said...

These people don't punch in or out, have no oversight, do as they please when they please and get treated as someone special with bonuses, colas and other perks. It's how the selectmen make sure they stay in power and are supported come election time. It's like Pavlov's Theory.

Anonymous said...

Could it be that the person that made the motion for a raise intends to be a Winchester employee again?

Anonymous said...

C'mon people this is getting beyond stupidity. How can our selectmen justify the actions of the planning board, zoning board and themselves when you have 17 upcoming cases in court over decisions made by a handful of people running this town into the ground. Looking back it's the same people on these boards getting sued every year. We're just wasting tax payer dollars keeping these people on these boards and need to remove them.

Anonymous said...

Oct 18 Anonymous poster, what are the names of the 17 cases you are claiming are upcoming? I dont believe you. Just because you say it dont make it so.

Anonymous said...

Guess you didn't bother to read the article or just ignored it so you could run your mouth.

"The difference between Richmond and Winchester is the number of cases, Fraser said. While Fraser estimates Richmond has about a half-dozen cases a year, Winchester, which has a population about four times as large, has 17 cases on its 2012 legal calendar."

Clear enough for you?

Anonymous said...

A bit testy you little insider. Must be you haven't had a hug lately! Again, just because this person said it is, what are the cases?

Anonymous said...

Why don't you get off your lazy ass and go up to the court house on your own and find out if it bothers you so much? Who the hell are you to think someone is going to do everything for you, do it yourself. Besides you'd just post more crap that it's not true and you don't believe it. You're a real pain in the ass.

Anonymous said...

The people who act so hostile and tough on here are probably the same people who dont go to meetings or vote, big tough guys behind anonymous, but cant actually lift a finger to help change happen. gey off YOUR lazy ass and get out and vote.