NASHUA — Controversy is brewing over how much authority the aldermanic Finance Committee has as a governing body, prompting a legal opinion on the issue.
This week, emotions flared as committee members argued with Mayor Donnalee Lozeau about their duties and fiscal responsibilities.
The responsibilities of the Finance Committee have come into question since the panel tabled a proposed purchase of two dump trucks for the city’s Public Works Department last month. The board is still asking for clarification on the recommendation for 10-wheel dump trucks as opposed to smaller vehicles.
“The Finance Committee is limited in its scope of responsibility,” Lozeau told the group on Wednesday, describing it as a checks and balance committee.
Alderman Ken Siegel, Ward 9, classified the lengthy discussion as a “legislative tantrum,” maintaining all the committee was seeking was additional information and a simple explanation on the proposed dump truck purchases.
Lozeau said the recommended purchase of the vehicles was already approved by the Board of Public Works, and the Board of Aldermen appropriated money for the truck purchases when it authorized the operating budget.
The Finance Committee is assigned to review all contracts over $10,000.
“This contract review, however, does not give the Finance Committee the ability to contradict the full (Board of Aldermen’s) appropriating authority by denying an expenditure of appropriated funds because a majority of the Finance Committee does not agree with the purpose of the spending,” wrote attorney Dorothy Clark, deputy corporation counsel for the city, in a memo to the Board of Public Works.
Clark went on to explain that under its charter authority, the committee’s basic responsibility is to confirm that an expenditure is from an appropriate account and that funding is available in that account.
Several committee members were taken aback by the attorney’s memo.
“The legal opinion is unenforceable,” said Alderman-at-Large Dan Moriarty, who stressed the committee’s duty is to ensure fiscal prudence.
Alderman-at-Large James Donchess said the Public Works Department should educate the committee on the need for the trucks, recommending that the Superintendent of Streets be on hand to offer more information on the proposal.
“I just don’t see how city government is harmed if he were to come before us and explain this,” said Donchess. “… I just don’t get why there is so much resistance.”
In the past two years, Donchess said he has never been granted authority to speak face-to-face with a city employee. The inaccessibility of city employees to aldermen makes city government dysfunctional, Donchess said.
“I don’t think there is any dysfunctionality at all,” Lozeau said, adding that there is plenty of access to information and that a chain of command exists for a reason.
Lozeau said aldermen have access to every division director.
“I don’t think we have to have a power struggle here,” said the mayor, adding she hopes all of the various boards can work together without going to court over disagreements.
The committee deserves answers, which is why it is sent memos with all contract requests, said Lozeau, who serves as chairman of the Finance Committee. But to have a city employee attend a committee meeting when a policy board has already addressed the matter thoroughly is not necessary, she said.
Siegel told the mayor to read the city charter, contending the panel has every authority to table or reject items. In his efforts to obtain additional information, Siegel said his written memos to city employees are often not answered, but the emailed content is always passed along to the mayor from city staff.
“I think that is incredibly destructive,” Siegel told Lozeau. “… I think you are doing the citizens of Nashua a great disservice.”
“I am not interested in drawing a line in the sand,” she said, adding there has to be a balance between all of the various priorities given to city workers.
Still tabled in committee is the ongoing request for $222,204 for two Freightliner 10-wheel dump trucks.
Regarding the request, Alderman Pam Brown, Ward 4, said the Board of Public Works already reviewed the matter in depth, adding it is arrogant of the committee to stall a budget item that was already approved.
“They are the experts — they are the professionals,” she said.