The importance of the New Hampshire Executive Council far surpasses the small amount of recognition its members get from the press and the public. The five-member council was designed by the Founders to serve as a check on executive power, making it an important safeguard against cronyism, extravagance and graft. Its members vote up or down on all significant state contracts, all state judicial nominations and appointments of people to head all state agencies. It also sets priorities for all state highway projects.

Executive councilors are powerful people who get their phone calls returned. And, in addition to their other duties, that makes them informal ombudsmen for their constituents. They are often called upon to mediate disputes among individuals, communities and government agencies — another function that can place limits on government excess. So it makes a difference who serves on this key body.

We have been impressed with the high quality of all the council candidates this year. Here’s how we sort out next week’s contests in the two districts that most affect this region.

Council District 2 (Chesterfield, Westmoreland, Walpole, Stoddard, Dublin and points east to Concord): The incumbent is John Shea, affectionately known as the accidental councilor. A Keene native now living in Nelson, Shea had been putting his name on the ballot so that embarrassed Democrats could at least field a candidate. In 2006, he thought his chances were so poor against longtime Republican councilor Peter Spaulding that he was on a trip to Europe when the votes were counted. Yet Shea was the surprise winner, riding a general Democratic wave to victory that year. He soon jumped into the pool, feet first.

Shea has been a conscientious councilor, traveling around his salamander-like district and discussing local issues town by town. On occasion, he has opposed positions favored by his fellow Democrat, Governor John Lynch, but he must have done so graciously. Lynch has endorsed his re-election, calling him a “partner in progress.” Shea’s key policy priority next year, he says, will be keeping an eye on spending as the state faces stark economic challenges.

Shea’s opponent is Republican Daniel St. Hilaire, a Concord city councilor and the Merrimack county attorney. St. Hilaire talks enthusiastically about his love of public life, about his enjoyment of meeting and interacting with people and about his pro-life Republican credentials, although he concedes that the Executive Council should not be a partisan body.

St. Hilaire almost certainly has a bright future in New Hampshire politics, but he hasn’t made the case for unseating Shea.

Council District 5 (Hinsdale, Winchester, Keene Jaffrey, Peterborough and points east to Nashua):  Democrat Debora Pignatelli of Nashua has held this post for two terms, putting together a fine record of service. Among other things, she insisted that the council hold public hearings on key appointments, something that had not previously been done. And, despite some initial opposition from her colleagues, she carried the day, nudging a critical function of the council into brighter sunlight.

She also has made a point of insisting on competitive bidding for state contracts, a position that has no doubt saved the state a great deal of money during her four years on the job.

Pignatelli’s opponent is also an impressive candidate. Republican Stephen Stepanek of Amherst is a state representative and a retired businessman. He also served as a volunteer on the New Hampshire Supreme Court Professional Conduct Committee, experience that could be useful when the council considers judicial nominations.

Stepanek is bursting with energy. Executive councilors “should be the advocate for all their communities,” he says. “I think we need more leadership here,” he says. He talks most enthusiastically about fostering commercial development by bringing together private industries, state agencies and town officials.

While helping communities achieve their goals is a perfectly proper function for an executive councilor, Stepanek almost sounds like the well-meaning Boy Scout who helped women cross the street without asking if they wanted to go. Executive councilors are resources for local communities, not leaders. Perhaps Stepanek’s enthusiasms might be better suited to a job with the Department of Resources and Economic Development.

Those mild reservations aside, Stepanek and Pignatelli both merit voter consideration in the days leading up to November 4. In the end, however, we believe Pignatelli, with her balanced approach to the tasks at hand and her impressive track record, merits re-election.

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