Council Holds Nonpublic Meeting on Town Historian

Council Chair Mark Osborne said this week that a nonpublic session to talk about Town Historian Rick Holmes was intended to give him more information on the historian, his post and his presence in the Municipal Building.

Holmes was not in attendance at the session.

Osborne and the other Councilors met in a nonpublic session before the April 24 budget meeting to discuss Holmes. “Some constituents were asking questions, and I called the nonpublic because I don’t know anything about him,” Osborne said.

While Osborne did not cite any particular residents, former Councilors Janet Fairbanks and Kevin Coyle have expressed reservations about the Holmes position on their public affairs TV show and in private.

“He is not an employee,” Fairbanks said in a phone interview last week. “He’s a private citizen. How did it come to be that he has an office in the Municipal Building?” Fairbanks said Holmes has access to the town’s copier, supplies, lights and heat, and telephone.

She said she would have no problem if Holmes had an office and office hours working out of the Historical Museum, but she wasn’t comfortable with him in the Municipal Building. “I don’t know if the space could be used by a town employee,” she said. “But this building is paid for through taxation, and should be used by town employees.”

According to Osborne, his questions included the following: Is Holmes an employee of the town? “There was no reference to him in the budget documents,” Osborne said. He also wanted to know the process by which Holmes was appointed, if the appointment went through a previous Council, or if the then-Administrator “did it on his own.”

The Council voted 5-1 to go into nonpublic session, with Phyllis Katsakiores abstaining. Joshua Bourdon arrived late. The nonpublic was called according to RSA 91-A:3, II (e), “Matters which, if discussed in public, would likely affect adversely the reputation of any person, other than a member of the board, unless such person requests an open meeting. This exemption shall extend to include any application for assistance or tax abatement or waiver of a fee, fine or other levy, if based on inability to pay or poverty of the applicant.”

The minutes were not sealed. Under “Description of matters discussed and final decisions made,” Councilor Thomas Cardon wrote, “Concern with office space in the Municipal Center.” Cardon’s notes on the meeting go on, “Find out about position. Council approved Town Historian office in February 2012.”

Cardon’s notes continue, “Office previously used by Town Clerk. No cost to town. Will talk about at future meeting.”

“I wanted to make sure I could answer the questions, ‘Who is he,’ ‘Why is he in Town Hall,’” Osborne said. “When I ask questions I don’t know the answers to, I don’t want it to be a public discussion.”

Osborne said his questions were answered by Acting Town Administrator Larry Budreau, who provided documentation on Holmes’s appointment and use of the space.

“I was making sure I was obeying 91-A as well as I could,” Osborne said. “It was a brief but informative discussion on a procedural question.”

Karen Blandford-Anderson, chairman of the Heritage Commission, said she had e-mailed all the Councilors and explained how the position came about.

“The Council should do its homework before making this a public issue,” Blandford-Anderson said. “I do not understand why anyone would want him out of the Municipal Center.

“Rick receives no compensation from the town, so that is a non-issue,” she said. While he does occupy an office for up to four hours a week and by appointment, she pointed out that the space is still available for Town Clerk Denise Neale for swearing-in of officers.

Blandford-Anderson said she wished the Council had talked to her first. Holmes reports to her as head of the Heritage Commission, she said.

Holmes talks to people about their ancestors and their Derry connections, she said. He also does research for the town into deeds and land issues. While he also writes books and may use the space for that work, he gives the Heritage Commission a cut of his sales, she said.

Blandford-Anderson wrote to the Council concerning the position: “This person was to be available to the townspeople or visiting people in person two days per week, four hours each day. In exchange, the town would provide ‘space’ in the Municipal Center for this person to greet people who come to the Municipal Center and offer them information.”

That information includes Town history, house history, land history and artifacts found in homes, attics, or flea markets that may have some historical or monetary significance.

Blandford-Anderson further wrote, “We have met over the years in the “space” in the Municipal Center, with teachers from the various schools to discuss how to integrate Derry history into the classrooms. We have worked with the town librarian to create programs and promote Derry history to the general public. We have researched multiple areas of town history for departments within the Town of Derry structure and most recently the history and location of potential historical sites on town-owned land, including a 7 a.m. walk in the woods to review one site.”

She was partially satisfied by an e-mail response from Osborne, who said he was not questioning the validity of Holmes’s presence but educating himself on the origins of the title and how it came to be.

Asked why the meeting took place in closed session without Holmes present, Osborne said in a phone interview Friday that there were several reasons Holmes had not been asked to participate.  There was some confusion as to whether or not Holmes was a town employee, he said, noting, “If he was, it would fall under 91-A.”

Osborne also said the meeting was a “fact-finding mission” by the Council and not a deliberate attempt to exclude Holmes. “We just wanted to satisfy our inquiries,” he said.

Most of the Councilors surveyed agreed the meeting was informational only. Cardon said, “We just discussed what his role was.”

Cardon said Holmes’s spot in the office building was “prime real estate” and he hated to see it empty. “He does a great job and I’m fine with it,” Cardon said.

Bourdon said, “What I got from that meeting was a sense of, ‘How did this come to be?’ It was informative more than anything.”

Bourdon added, “It was nothing against Rick. It was more about the office. A lot of us are new.” He noted that he and David Fischer were newly elected and that Cardon, Osborne and Al Dimmock joined the board last year.

“I haven’t met Rick, but it is on my to-do list,” Bourdon said. “I’m grateful that we have that kind of expertise here – it’s part of what makes Derry unique.”

“It was an informational meeting,” Dimmock said. “If anyone wants to make anything else out of it, they don’t know what they’re talking about. We just wanted to know who authorized this position, what’s going on. Nobody wants to put him out of there.”

Why was Holmes not invited? “It was not necessary for him to be there,” Dimmock said. “We took no votes, no decisions were made.”

Holmes is a neighbor of Dimmock’s, and they have had many good talks over the years, he said, adding, “I am not trying to get him out of there.”

Dimmock pointed out that as Holmes is not an employee of the town, it was not necessary under RSA 91-A to invite him to participate in the discussion.

Katsakiores wasn’t so sure. “If it was an informational session, why was it done behind closed doors?” she asked. Katsakiores said she was “shocked” at the move and thought it should have been a public discussion.

“Too much is done behind closed doors,” Katsakiores said. “The public has a right to know. If we had had this discussion in public, it would be nothing.”

And she thinks the Municipal Center is an appropriate venue for the man she calls one of the town’s greatest assets.

David Fischer said, “I do not want to comment on that.” Michael Fairbanks could not be reached.

Holmes said he was baffled by the entire situation. He heard about it on a Friday and “couldn’t sleep all weekend. I wondered, ‘What had I done?’” He talked to Acting Town Administrator Larry Budreau the following Monday and said, “Larry was very good” about explaining the Council’s motives.

He wonders why the Council took that route to understand his position. He’s in the Municipal Center twice a week with office hours and other times by appointment, and they could have stopped by any time, he pointed out. They could also have asked Budreau, Town Clerk Denise Neale, Chief Financial Officer Frank Childs or “any of the custodians” who occupied the first office on the left. They could also, he said, have read a description of his position on the town Web site.

Ever the historian, Holmes compared the closed session to the Star Chamber in medieval England, where people were found guilty after a trial to which they weren’t invited.