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Monday, July 21, 2014

Hollis holds secret meeting on proposed natural gas pipeline, likely in violation of Right to Know law

HOLLIS – An assortment of public and private officials, including a quorum of the Board of Selectmen, two state legislators and a member of the Beaver Brook Association, held a meeting at Town Hall on Thursday night to talk about the path of a proposed natural gas pipeline through town and excluded the public from attending.

The meeting was likely held illegally and violated the state’s Right to Know Law. ...

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HOLLIS – An assortment of public and private officials, including a quorum of the Board of Selectmen, two state legislators and a member of the Beaver Brook Association, held a meeting at Town Hall on Thursday night to talk about the path of a proposed natural gas pipeline through town and excluded the public from attending.

The meeting was likely held illegally and violated the state’s Right to Know Law.

At the start of the session on Thursday night, Hollis Town Administrator Troy Brown told a Telegraph reporter that the meeting was non-public and not open to the press.

Present in the room at the time were State Sen. Peggy Gilmour; State Rep. Jim Belanger; Drew Kellner, chairman of Beaver Brook Association trustees; attorney Robert Ciandella; Hollis Town Planner Mark Fougere; and Selectman Vahrij Manoukian. The meeting was not advertised or posted on the town web site.

Mark LeDoux, chairman of the Hollis Board of Selectmen, said Friday that three selectmen – a quorum of the board – were present at the meeting, although he was in Chicago at the time.

“I was told by Troy (Brown) that this would be a non-public meeting with members from the planning and select board to have an attorney-client privileged meeting,” said LeDoux. “The only ones I notified were the land protection study committee, who help identify lands for public purchase, the conservation commission, and the planning board who oversees development and infrastructure. I suggest they all attend to see what our legal strategy will be so we’re all singing the same hymn.”

The state’s Right to Know law allows public bodies to consult with legal counsel privately in so-called “non-meetings,” but does not afford those boards the right to consult with other elected officials – in this case Gilmour and Belanger – privately.

The purpose of the Right to Know Law “is to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people,” according to the law. “The Right-to-Know Law was intended to increase public access to governmental proceedings in order to augment public control of government and encourage administrative responsibility.”

At a public hearing on Monday, July 14, LeDoux initially announced the strategy session between the selectmen and land use boards to discuss proposed Northeast Expansion pipeline would be open to the public, even though it was considered a non-meeting.

On Friday, LeDoux apologized for his error in announcing that the meeting would be open to the public and said that he had subsequently been informed by counsel that it needed to be a private session.

LeDoux said the town is trying to build a legal case to oppose the construction of the pipeline, and it would be at a disadvantage if the strategy were made public. Troy Brown could not be reached for comment.