CONCORD — The appointment of former State Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, as executive director of the Local Government Center (LGC) is already reaping legislative benefits for the controversial organization that manages insurance pools for New Hampshire municipalities, according to state Democrats and LGC critics.
The New Hampshire Democratic Party in a statement Tuesday said Bragdon's appointment of State Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith, to an LGC study committee raises "significant concerns about a breach of the state's ethics handbook" given the timing of the appointment and Forrester's perceived support for the LGC.
The letter from Bragdon notifying Forrester of her appointment to the study committee is dated July 19, while Bragdon acknowledged that he began to consider a position with the LGC on July 11.
"I can't dispute, the timing is there," said Bragdon in a telephone interview on Wednesday, even though he insisted he had decided on Forrester for the position on July 5, when he signed the bill creating the study committee and forwarded it to the governor for her signature. At the time, the LGC director position had not even come up, he said.
Bragdon took over as LGC executive director on Aug. 14 and resigned as Senate president on Aug. 16, but said he has no intention of giving up his Senate seat. The Senate has scheduled a special session on Sept. 3 to vote on a new president.
"I relinquished the job of Senate president, and this is a good example of why," he said. "People are going to be looking at every little thing, and even though I am certain I have the integrity to do the right thing, people outside look at it and say, 'What is going on there?' "
According to Harrell Kirstein, communications director for the state Democratic party, the appointment of Forrester under such circumstances is no little thing.
"Bragdon's official and legal appointment of Forrester is a clear conflict of interest," Kirstein said. "He used his position as Senate President to influence a decision that would directly benefit the LGC, while being considered for a $180,000 contract with the LGC."
Surpluses at issue
The Local Government Center, which began years ago as the New Hampshire Municipal Association, has collected millions in insurance premiums while retaining huge surpluses, according to critics like Dave Lang, president of the Professional Firefighters Association of New Hampshire.
Lang and others have fought the LGC in court for years, arguing that the surpluses should be returned to the municipal employees or the cities and towns they worked for.
The LGC recently appealed to the state Supreme Court in an effort to overturn an order by the state Bureau of Securities Regulation to return more than $50 million to LGC members and set benchmarks for how much it can keep in reserves.
The legislative study committee, consisting of four House members and one senator, was created to review the hearing officer's report with regard to the LGC and recommend legislative changes to the laws governing risk pools in the state.
"It's no secret that Senator Forrester has experience with municipalities and may be sympathetic to some of the (LGC) issues," said Lang.
Forrester served as town administrator in Tuftonboro and New Durham, and as the executive director for Main Street programs in Plymouth and Meredith. Lang claims the voting records of both Forrester and Bragdon often followed LGC recommendations on issues like reserve levels and non-profit versus for-profit status.
The study committee took testimony for the first time on Tuesday, and Lang, who was present for much of the hearing, said Forrester was not a tough questioner. "She asked questions that would bring out the best in the local government center," he said.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Forrester said her municipal experience and her role as vice chair of the Public and Municipal Affairs Committee make her well-suited for the committee role.
"I think that I can be fair about the whole situation," she said. "For me, my number one priority is to protect my community. If that means the LGC did some things that weren't appropriate and money needs to be returned, I want my community to get that money back."
Ryan Williams, a senior advisor to the state Republican Party, said Forrester is an excellent appointment to the committee. "Senator Forrester is a principled and outstanding legislator who views every issue with an open mind," he said. "For Democrats to try to cast any dispersions on her record or her ability to evaluate issues is a desperate political move."firstname.lastname@example.org