Restored Legal Dept. Funding Now Up to Town Meeting Vote
Salaries were restored, but still require town meeting approval.
After hearing a parade of town officials and residents voice adamant support for Hampton’s in-house legal department, voters at Saturday’s deliberative session approved budget amendments that restored full funding for the department’s salaries.
A combination of warrant amendments Saturday added in $132,006 to cover the salaries for Hampton’s two town attorneys and protected the $14,650 in funding for those two individuals' human resources duties, bringing the new operating budget bottom line to $24,510,290, or roughly $230,000 less than the $24.74 million default budget.
Hampton School Board member Art Gopalan called for the funding restoration because he felt the old Hampton Budget Committee-accepted $24.39 million operating budget was “flawed” because the committee can’t make changes that influence policy, something that many have contended the legal department cut did.
Several residents voiced similar concerns Saturday before most of the roughly 120 voters present passed the amendment restoring the funding and the operating budget as a whole.
“If you expect anybody to believe that this is anything but a blatant attempt to influence legal department policy, then I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you,” said Fred Rice, a state representative and former selectman. “That’s the biggest sham I’ve heard in a long time. This is a direct attempt. ... This is not the right way to do what the budget committee is trying to do.”
Gopalan’s motion was for the full $146,656 originally appropriated for that line of the legal department budget, although Hampton Budget Committee member Mark McFarlin had restored $14,650 to that line in January in order to ensure Hampton had human resources services in the chance that the two in-house lawyers — whom perform those services — were in fact eliminated.
Resident and budget committee candidate Diandra Sanphy made the corrective motion to reduce that $14,650 from the legal budget after Gopalan’s amendment passed, avoiding redundancy in the operating budget.
Town Attorney Mark Gearreald was cheerful at the end of Saturday’s 10-hour deliberative session, which also included an amendment to add roughly $1 million to the fire stations improvement project article in order for the town to bond the second phase of the Winnacunnet Road station with the rest of the now-$5,756,740 project.
Gearreald could be seen talking to and thanking resident and former town official Jim Workman for supporting the legal department at the end of the deliberative session, although the town attorney declined official comment.
“I don’t want to comment on anything today,” said Gearreald.
Brian Warburton, a budget committee member who co-sponsored a petitioned advisory article that asks residents to inform selectmen whether they'd like to keep an in-house legal department, was less than cheerful about the restoration of the funding.
What Warburton said bothered him most, though, was the characterization that his committee did something "illegal" and that he has something personal against Gearreald and Assistant Town Attorney Wanda Robertson.
"I like Mark Gearreald — this is not about Mark Gearreald," said Warburton. "I’m looking at what is best for the town of Hampton. ... This is about the cost."
The legal department funding, as will the rest of the town side of the warrant, which went largely unchanged Saturday despite some passed and failed amendments on smaller items, will now go before the voters as part of the town meeting balloting.
Balloting is on Tuesday, March 13, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Stay tuned for additional stories about town meeting, including more coverage of Saturday's deliberative session and coverage of the several deliberative sessions happening next week.