NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
The Lancaster selectmen filled former chairman Troy Merner’s seat with Kathy Lavoie, the woman who blew the whistle on Merner for moving out of Lancaster and continuing to serve on the selectboard, and as Coos County District 1 state Representative, which ultimately led to him resigning from both.
At Monday night’s selectboard meeting, the two remaining selectmen Leon Rideout and Shane Beattie reviewed written submissions from Lavoie and four other people who expressed willingness to serve out Merner’s term until town meeting in March. They also asked all five candidates questions at the meeting before conferring with each other, then deciding on Lavoie.
Lavoie said the three questions included what they hope to accomplish before March, what are Lancaster’s greatest strengths and why they should be chosen to serve out the rest of Merner’s term on the selectboard.
Lavoie said she understands some people will say she had Merner ousted to take his selectman’s seat, but that’s definitely not the case, she said after the meeting.
“I would have made the call on anyone who I felt didn’t tell whole truth at the polls,” Lavoie said. “They are unrelated. I made the call as a volunteer poll worker. It had nothing to do with any elected positions.”
She said she is honored the other two selectmen have faith in her to fill out the term. Lavoie resigned her seats on the conservation commission and the budget committee to serve as selectman.
Lavoie, a Republican, called the Attorney General’s Office on March 22 to share her concerns as a poll worker during the November 2022 election and the March town meeting election that Merner, who is also a Republican, wasn’t living in Lancaster as he claimed and as required.
The selectmen haven’t addressed whether Merner should repay the $3,300 annual stipend selectmen receive in Lancaster as some residents have suggested. And the Attorney General’s Office said it is still investigating Merner for allegations regarding his mileage reimbursements as a state Representative to and from the State House in Concord and wrongful voting. Merner was paid $6,841.87 in mileage during the last House session, according to Jennifer Becker, Director of the General Court Administrative Office.
House members are paid $200 in January of the first year of their term, which represents their salary for both years of the term, she said.
Merner didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
In a letter to House Speaker Sherman Packard dated Sept. 18, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Conley said an investigation showed Merner had been living in Carroll for more than a year while claiming domicile in Lancaster.
Packard immediately asked Merner to resign from the House, which he did. Merner also resigned from the Lancaster selectboard.
Three people have also filed with the Secretary of State to run for Merner’s seat in the House of Representatives – a Democrat, Cathleen Fountain of Dalton, and two Republicans, Sean Durkin of Northumberland and Pamela Kathan of Dalton. Coos County District 1 includes Dalton, Lancaster, Northumberland and Stratford. The primary election will be Dec. 5 and special election Jan. 23, 2024.
Lancaster Town Manager Benjamin Gaetjens-Oleson said Monday that he and many people knew Merner wasn’t living in Lancaster and in fact, some had come to his office to complain.
“I think a lot of people were a little annoyed. They knew it wasn’t right that he wasn’t a resident,” Gaetjens-Oleson said, adding there was no clear way to remove a selectman except by filing in Superior Court.
Selectman Rideout, who served in the House from 2012 to 2016, said he knew Merner wasn’t living in Lancaster.
“I was under the impression he was all set to continue. I knew he got remarried and lived with his new spouse in Carroll. He said he had a room here in Lancaster and the impression was he was all set,” Rideout said.
Assistant Attorney General Conley noted in the letter that the Constitution is clear that Merner shouldn’t have been serving in the House when he didn’t live in his District, but said it was up to the House to determine the qualifications of its members.
“This office will continue to investigate Rep. Merner’s activities that are within our jurisdiction, including but not limited to, issues related to mileage reimbursements and an allegation of wrongful voting,” Conley wrote. That investigation is ongoing.
Merner’s votes have been viewed as critical because of the almost even split between Democrats and Republicans in the House.
With Merner’s resignation, the House count is now 196 Democrats, 198 Republicans, three independents and three vacancies that will lead to three upcoming special elections.
House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm said, “Rep. Merner’s illegal vote likely affected the outcome of many motions that were decided by zero or one vote margins and on one bill, HB 626, his vote directly caused the bill to be killed.”
HB 626 would have required oversight of the school voucher program by the state Department of Education. “Currently, the state sends millions of dollars a year – 10% of all EFA funds – to a private company to administer the program, which is inefficient, unaccountable, and takes funding away and opportunity from our children in our public schools,” Wilhelm said.
Rep. David Luneau, D-Hopkinton, has asked the Rules Committee to allow late submission of a bill to resurrect HB 626, but was denied along party lines 5 to 4.
Coos County District 6 will also hold a primary election Dec. 5 and a special election Jan. 23, 2024, for the House seat left after Bill Hatch resigned due to moving away from Gorham to deal with health problems.
Democrat Edith Tucker of Randolph has filed for the House seat and Republicans Don Lacasse and Michael Murphy, both of Gorham.
Coos County District 6 includes Bean’s Grant, Bean’s Purchase, Chandler’s Purchase, Crawford’s Purchase, Cutt’s Grant, Gorham, Green’s Grant, Hadley’s Purchase, Low & Burbank’s Grant, Martin’s Location, Pinkham’s Grant, Randolph, Sargent’s Purchase, Shelburne, Success, Thompson & Meserve’s Purchase.
A third special election will be held Nov. 7 for the Nashua Ward 4 House seat left vacant when David Cote resigned. Cote, who has chronic health problems, didn’t participate in any votes during the last session citing health risks and Speaker Packard’s refusal to allow remote voting. The special election for Cote’s seat will be Nov. 7 with Democrat Paige Beauchemin running against Republican David M. Narkunas.