One of New Hampshire’s great strengths is the willingness of its citizens to step up and help lead. Despite its sometimes-unwieldy size, the 400-member N.H. House is one example. Its members earn a whopping $100 a year, plus mileage.
Sure, they become somewhat bigger fish in their respective ponds, but with few exceptions, the intent seems to be to serve because someone must, because a candidate feels the state is headed in the wrong direction, or to advocate for a certain issue or group. It’s not a position designed to make its occupants rich or powerful.
The same might be said of local offices, such as county commissioner, city councilor or town selectman. They’re important seats within their communities, but hardly springboards to fame and fortune.
That willingness to take on countless hours of work and face much additional scrutiny for little reward is part of what makes the Granite State special. And there have been times when, sadly, too few names have appeared on ballots.
During such times, some hardy souls have jumped in and held multiple offices ensuring the people’s business continues without a stumble. This can, however, be a tricky challenge, and it’s not one we’d advise. It’s difficult to serve two masters, even — perhaps especially — when those masters’ interests overlap.
A state representative who also serves on the local school board is bound to be in conflict, since local schools rely heavily on state grants and services. That lawmaker would face voting on legislation that directly affects the school district, both in budgeting and policy, every year.
The same is true of municipal officials. There’s overlap between the school district and the city of Keene, for example, that could well pit one against the other on some matters. Yes, there are opportunities to work together. But the same person doesn’t have to sit in both seats to accomplish that. Conversely, a single person serving both entities would inevitably either wind up in conflict or having to absent themselves from important votes and discussions.
A similar dynamic affects the city and county. The two dip into much the same property tax pool, and share responsibility for some services, but it’s easy to envision them being at odds on a matter of importance.
Just a few years ago, the Cheshire County commissioners were looking at a potential new site for the county nursing home. Whether it wound up in Keene or not mattered. It would have affected the city’s tax base to have a large tax-free facility placed on what would otherwise be taxable land. And that was just one issue. The same dance occurred more than a decade ago with the relocation of the county jail.
So it was surprising to see not one, but two sitting city councilors — Randy Filiaut and Terry Clark — announce their intention to run for the county commission seat being vacated by Chuck Weed this year. Each indicated his intent is to help smooth city-county relations, to find synergies and mutually beneficial opportunities.
That’s a laudable goal, but the plan is a naïve one. Furthermore, it’s unnecessary. There’s no blockade on information between Cheshire County and the city of Keene. Anyone on the council or the commission could easily find those same synergies and opportunities. And this without the specter of a conflict that would place the trust of voters — for either the city or county position — in jeopardy.
Further, the need for someone to “step up” to fill multiple roles is nonexistent. The past few city and county races have not lacked for viable candidates. For Filiault or Clark to hold both positions would bar someone with different perceptions and ideas from at least one of the seats. And that would both deter qualified people from running and deprive the region of another helpful voice.
Clark has, for the past year, served as the county’s treasurer while sitting on the City Council. That might be less than ideal, but as treasurer, he does not decide on policy in a way that would likely conflict with his city duties.
Both men have served the city for years, and their experience is clearly valued, as each was returned to office in his most recent run. But if they want to tackle the new challenge of county government, they should step down from their council seat.
The state, notoriously lax on questions of “conflict” for elected officials, doesn’t bar holding both city and county seats.
But it’s still a bad idea.