Court: Coakley Landfill Group must follow Right to Know law

By Jeff McMenemy 
jmcmenemy@seacoastonline.com 

Posted Sep 25, 2018 at 4:06 PMUpdated Sep 26, 2018 at 10:10 AM

  

PORTSMOUTH -- A Superior Court judge ruled the Coakley Landfill Group is a “public body” and must follow the state’s Right to Know law.

Superior Court Judge N. William Delker added in his 22-page decision released Tuesday that the CLG’s executive committee must hold public meetings from now on and follow all rules dictated by the state’s Right to Know law.

In making his determination, Delker pointed to Portsmouth City Attorney Robert Sullivan’s role as chairman of the CLG’s executive committee and noted he wields two votes in committee matters. He also pointed out the city’s environmental planner Peter Britz also serves as the CLG’s “technical expert.”

“Portsmouth alone has spent more than $17 million on the CLG. As noted by virtue of the voting power of the municipal members ... Attorney Sullivan and (Britz) have considerable influence on how that public money is spent,” Delker said in his ruling.

“While it is true that Portsmouth cannot unilaterally force CLG to take action, Portsmouth alone does have the power to block decisions both on the executive committee and in a full meeting of the group. The exercise of that authority to thwart CLG’s efforts can be as much, if not more, of a matter of public concern than the actions CLG actually undertakes.”

Delker also noted “the decisions of CLG and how it approaches the remediation of the contamination of Coakley landfill have a substantial impact on residents and businesses in the area.”

“The public has a right to know how its servants are exercising their authority through the CLG,” he ruled.

The suit against the CLG was brought by state Reps. Mindi Messmer, Renny Cushing, Phil Bean, Mike Edgar, Henry Marsh and former longtime Portsmouth Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine. The town of Hampton intervened in the case.

The CLG is made up of municipalities and private groups that used the Superfund cleanup site in Greenland and North Hampton, including companies that transported trash to the site. The city of Portsmouth is responsible for paying 53.6 percent of the CLG remediation costs and together the municipalities in the group are responsible for more than 60 percent of the costs.

The landfill accepted waste from 1972 to 1982 and then incinerator waste until 1985. It was capped in 1998.

Cushing on Tuesday said Delker’s decision could set “national precedent,” adding, “Polluters everywhere should be concerned by this decision.”

He praised Delker’s decision, stating “it’s a good day for sunshine in the state of New Hampshire.”

As Delker pointed out, Cushing noted, “the people of Portsmouth and the entire Seacoast should know how their money is being spent.”

Cushing stressed the CLG has to “immediately” open its executive committee meetings and follow all requirements of the Right to Know law.

“The next meeting of the CLG will be open to the public otherwise they’ll violate the court order and will face being held in contempt of court,” Cushing said. “I don’t think they want to do that.”

Cushing said the decision shows “Bob Sullivan can’t wear two hats at any given time, he can’t be city attorney and the head of the CLG. It’s an inherent conflict of interest.”

He believes Portsmouth “needs to find someone else” to chair the CLG and the CLG needs to look closely “at how it’s conducted its business.”

Cushing said Delker’s ruling should give pause to hybrid organizations like the CLG, who choose to operate in secret.

“It seems they’re used sometimes as a way to thwart the public’s access to ... public records,” he said. “And that’s not right.”

By Jeff McMenemy 
jmcmenemy@seacoastonline.com 

Posted Sep 25, 2018 at 4:06 PMUpdated Sep 26, 2018 at 10:10 AM

PORTSMOUTH -- A Superior Court judge ruled the Coakley Landfill Group is a “public body” and must follow the state’s Right to Know law.

Superior Court Judge N. William Delker added in his 22-page decision released Tuesday that the CLG’s executive committee must hold public meetings from now on and follow all rules dictated by the state’s Right to Know law.

In making his determination, Delker pointed to Portsmouth City Attorney Robert Sullivan’s role as chairman of the CLG’s executive committee and noted he wields two votes in committee matters. He also pointed out the city’s environmental planner Peter Britz also serves as the CLG’s “technical expert.”

“Portsmouth alone has spent more than $17 million on the CLG. As noted by virtue of the voting power of the municipal members ... Attorney Sullivan and (Britz) have considerable influence on how that public money is spent,” Delker said in his ruling.

“While it is true that Portsmouth cannot unilaterally force CLG to take action, Portsmouth alone does have the power to block decisions both on the executive committee and in a full meeting of the group. The exercise of that authority to thwart CLG’s efforts can be as much, if not more, of a matter of public concern than the actions CLG actually undertakes.”

Delker also noted “the decisions of CLG and how it approaches the remediation of the contamination of Coakley landfill have a substantial impact on residents and businesses in the area.”

“The public has a right to know how its servants are exercising their authority through the CLG,” he ruled.

The suit against the CLG was brought by state Reps. Mindi Messmer, Renny Cushing, Phil Bean, Mike Edgar, Henry Marsh and former longtime Portsmouth Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine. The town of Hampton intervened in the case.

The CLG is made up of municipalities and private groups that used the Superfund cleanup site in Greenland and North Hampton, including companies that transported trash to the site. The city of Portsmouth is responsible for paying 53.6 percent of the CLG remediation costs and together the municipalities in the group are responsible for more than 60 percent of the costs.

The landfill accepted waste from 1972 to 1982 and then incinerator waste until 1985. It was capped in 1998.

Cushing on Tuesday said Delker’s decision could set “national precedent,” adding, “Polluters everywhere should be concerned by this decision.”

He praised Delker’s decision, stating “it’s a good day for sunshine in the state of New Hampshire.”

As Delker pointed out, Cushing noted, “the people of Portsmouth and the entire Seacoast should know how their money is being spent.”

Cushing stressed the CLG has to “immediately” open its executive committee meetings and follow all requirements of the Right to Know law.

“The next meeting of the CLG will be open to the public otherwise they’ll violate the court order and will face being held in contempt of court,” Cushing said. “I don’t think they want to do that.”

Cushing said the decision shows “Bob Sullivan can’t wear two hats at any given time, he can’t be city attorney and the head of the CLG. It’s an inherent conflict of interest.”

He believes Portsmouth “needs to find someone else” to chair the CLG and the CLG needs to look closely “at how it’s conducted its business.”

Cushing said Delker’s ruling should give pause to hybrid organizations like the CLG, who choose to operate in secret.

“It seems they’re used sometimes as a way to thwart the public’s access to ... public records,” he said. “And that’s not right.”

Mindi Messmer