House Committee Votes To Kill Bill To Require Forensic Audits at Gunstock

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Paula Tracy photo

Members of the House Municipal and County Government Committee at Wednesday's meeting.


CONCORD – Supporters of Belknap County-owned Gunstock ski area came to the House Municipal and County Government Committee Wednesday as it voted down a bill they called “predatory.”

While the vote was 15-5 to kill it, there could still be a floor fight when House Bill 1414-FN comes before the 400-member body.

Members of Citizens for Belknap County, however, said they were pleased that the bill was stopped and claimed five libertarian state representatives from the county are looking any way they can to run the ski area “into the ground.”

State Rep. Barbara Comtois, R-Barnstead, and four other Belknap County co-sponsors asked in the bill for an increase in county revenue from ski and recreation areas. The contribution, currently 1.75 percent of yearly gross revenue, would increase to 3 percent.

The bill further seeks to mandate that all meetings of the Gunstock Area Commission be recorded, subject to the provisions of 91-A and that the Gunstock Area Commission shall every five years contract a firm to conduct a forensic audit of a random year with the first to be scrutinized the year ending April 30, 2021.

The New Hampshire Association of Counties estimated the annual increase in county revenue would be $300,000 per fiscal year for Belknap County.  

State Rep. Josh Yokela, R-Fremont, offered an amendment which would strip out all but the forensic audit.

At a hearing on the bill in January, he said “I think there was a lot of consternation about the language increasing the amount of money and public testimony on video recording. This amendment seeks to do two things: eliminate all of that and just focus on the forensic audit” as he said sponsors believed it was the most important part of the bill.

Rep. Diane Pauer, R-Brookline, said while she understood the concerns of some who supported the bill the addition of a forensic audit would be in addition to a regular annual audit which would be “more of a deep dive…to use as evidence in a legal proceeding.”

She said the Belknap County delegation could vote to have that done “so requiring this, to me, is an unnecessary expense for the county.

“I’m uncomfortable with putting an audit of that level into statute,” she said.

Rep. Diane Kelley, R-Temple, said she would normally agree with Rep. Pauer’s assessment but said she felt this was valuable, necessary and worth the expense for the county.

Yokela said the replace-all amendment leaving just the forensic audit every five years would be “avoiding that dust-up of political personalities.”

He noted this is a government-owned asset” which should be run in an above-board manner.

Rep. Deborah Aylward, R-Danbury, said she asked Rep. Harry Bean, R-Gilford if the county owned area had a fraud, waste and abuse policy but got no clear answer.

Rep. John MacDonald, R-Wolfeboro Falls, said he did not think legislators in Concord should be managing Gunstock.

“A forensic audit is very expensive,” he said. He said it should be left to the voters of Belknap County.

Rep. David Preece, D-Manchester, said an expensive forensic audit is “over the top” and Rep. Pauer also noted it might be considered an unfunded mandate if passed.

Rep. Len Turcotte, R-Barrington, the chair of the committee said he was a supporter of the measure and likened it to a tax audit.

“Let’s not gloss over the situation in Belknap,” he said. “It’s political.”

By putting in a forensic audit it takes out the politics, he said and could actually eliminate animosity.

In July 2022, Gunstock’s base lodge was packed with residents and supporters of the mountain for a series of emergency meetings in an effort to get the county-owned recreational facility reopened.

All top staff resigned July 20 just before the annual Soul Fest gathering of more than 6,000 youths.

The area closed on July 21 after the mass defection, including General Manager Tom Day as they and critics contended Gunstock was being hijacked by political extremists with Free Staters and libertarians on the 18-member all-Republican Belknap County Delegation.

Dr. David Strang, a member of the Gunstock Area Commission, was asked to resign, but said, in a Zoom attendance to the meeting, it was his understanding that if he quit there would be only two commissioners and essentially no more commission to do the business of the Belknap County-owned Gunstock Mountain Resort recreation area. 

Doug Lambert, secretary of the Gunstock Area Commission, said that meeting accomplished three essential things that needed to happen with Strang voting. That was to return the staff to their jobs, and that they were able to call the meeting to order and adjourn.

Commissioners Lambert and Jade Wood explained that the staff needed to be able to operate zip lines, a mountain coaster, and other recreational amenities as part of the contract with the organizers of Soul Fest or the area could be sued, essentially for breach of contract.

The show of force by residents worked and the staff returned and Soul Fest went on, but it led to a political action committee which took on some of the delegation and members lost their seats in a re-election.

After the vote, Wednesday Ruth Larson, a former Gunstock Area Commissioner, skier and Alton resident said in Belknap County they can anticipate that some who lost their political position will likely continue their efforts.

“Even though it was a good vote today, I’m glad to see it,” she said. “But we in Belknap County know how strong these efforts are to, if not privatize Gunstock, perhaps run it into the ground. What climate change may not accomplish,” she said.

Yokela and others in the minority said they did not want the matter to go on the consent calendar, meaning there is a potential for a floor fight in the House. 

Larson said Gunstock is a “beloved institution and part of the county” which she and other members of the Friends of Gunstock are willing to stick up for.

The co-sponsors of the bill are Reps. Paul Terry and Peter Varney of Alton, Lisa Smart of Meredith, and Nikki McCarter of Belmont, all Republicans.  

Rep. Tom Ploszaj, R-Center Harbor testified in favor of the bill, as did former state representative Mike Sylvia.   

The majority of the County Delegation was not supportive of HB 1414, and voted to oppose it in an 11-4 vote, notifying the House committee. The bill was unanimously opposed by both the Belknap County Commission and the Gunstock Area Commission. 

In a statement, Citizens for Belknap, the bi-partisan political action committee created in 2022 to organize against “a libertarian take-over of the Gunstock Area Commission ” said it had mobilized calls and emails to members of the committee, asking them to kill the bill.  

“Make no mistake, this is another attack on Gunstock,” said Al Posnack, co-chair of Citizens for Belknap.  “It serves to hobble Gunstock from making prudent financial decisions, like setting aside money for replacing aging lifts and capital improvements. The intent of Rep. Comtois and the other sponsors – despite what they might say – is to continue the war and cripple Gunstock,” he said.  

Posnack’s Citizens for Belknap co-chair, Prudy Morin Veysey, said, “Reps. Comtois, Terry, and Varney and ringleaders Mike Sylvia and Norm Silber couldn’t bring down Gunstock at the county level in 2022, so they tried to dupe an unfamiliar legislative committee, instead.”

“The Belknap County voters remember who caused the 2022 chaos in our wonderful county, and will remember who is now trying to attack Gunstock by sponsoring this disruptive House Bill 1414.”

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