Cook On Concord: Nominations flap shows value of Executive Council

Several recent events have pointed out the unique role of New Hampshire’s Executive Council, a vestige of colonial America.

In colonial times, when the predecessor to the current New Hampshire state constitution was drafted, the king of England appointed the colonial governor. You may recall that there was a certain amount of tension between the king and colonists during the end of the colonial period when the citizens resisted rule by the governor on behalf of George III. To remedy that situation, they devised the council, a consultative body with input over and a veto on certain gubernatorial actions. The king acceded to this system. Today, the council survives, having been included in every successor constitution or revision. While other states had similar councils, the only other one left is in Massachusetts, and it has a more limited role than ours.

The geographic size of the five districts in New Hampshire varies greatly. District 1, the district in the northern part of the state, stretches from the Canadian border all the way to the Lakes Region, taking up the vast majority of the state’s geography.

Raymond Burton, a moderate Republican, occupies this seat. A professional educator, Burton lives in Bath and has had a long career both in education and politics, having served as sergeant-of-arms of the New Hampshire House and Senate in the 1960s. He was first elected to the council in 1977 and served one term. He was re-elected in 1981 and has served continuously since then.

Burton is evidence of a part of the council’s role in his oft-quoted statement, “Governors come, governors go, and we go on and on.”

District 2 is represented by Executive Councilor Peter Spaulding, a UNH graduate and former Merrimack County commissioner. Spaulding has a long history in Republican politics and is a bank community relations officer full time. A resident of Hopkinton, he has been the representative of District 2, which is based in Merrimack County and the surrounding areas, since 1983.

Ruth Griffin represents District 3, which is the Seacoast and areas inland from it. A resident of Portsmouth, Griffin comes from a distinguished New Hampshire family. Recently, she has been in the press for certain fund-raising activities that have been the subject of other columns. She has been a member of the council since 1987 and is careful to hold governors’ feet to the fire when appropriate, whether they be Republicans or Democrats.

District 4 — Manchester and the surrounding towns — is represented by former Manchester Mayor Raymond J. Wieczorek, who was recently re-elected to his third term. An insurance agency owner, Wieczorek is seen as a dependable Republican vote and tends to work behind the scenes when it comes to giving advice to Republican governors. It will be interesting to see his role with incoming Governor-Elect Lynch.

In District 5 Councilor David Wheeler, former state senator from Milford, who represents the southwestern part of the state, including the city of Nashua, was defeated for re-election, ushering in Deborah Pignatelli, another former state senator and Nashua resident who will be the lone Democrat on the council for the next term.

Wheeler, a very conservative Republican, was a loyal vote for Governor Benson on the council. Pignatelli will serve a different role. Pignatelli is the wife of Attorney Michael Pignatelli of Rath Young & Pignatelli, the prominent Concord law firm headed by former Attorney General Thomas Rath, the Republication national committeeman.

The identity of the councilors, however, does not indicate entirely why they are important. The flap over lame duck appointments by Governor Benson and the willingness of the council to approve some and reject others, including Benson’s controversial appointment of a new education commissioner, show how important this role is. This is an example of how the council can insure the integrity of the process no matter the short-term effect of political events.

In a recent speech before a Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy-sponsored breakfast, former Gov. John H. Sununu praised the council as a body that is one of the main factors fostering citizen participation in government in New Hampshire.

Sununu pointed out that any citizen can contact his or her councilor at any time to question an appointment or an item in the budget, and this provides the chance for much voter input and assures that government will both be open and close to the people, if the people pay attention and take advantage of it.

There is no such opportunity in most states.

As we head into 2005, Happy New Year to all. Governmental change and new players on stage in Concord promise to provide much grist for the political mill and it will be interesting to watch.

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

Categories: News