NH cities struggle to balance direct democracy and public health

The majority of Seacoast communities are moving forward with their first half of Town Meetings this week,known as deliberative sessions, despite warnings from doctors against large gatherings due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Dr David Itkin, an infectious disease specialist at Portsmouth Regional Hospital, said he feared the meetings had the potential to be, if not super-spreading events, certainly spreaders.

“The potential for people to gather in large numbers, for a long time, while there is still a lot of COVID in the community, makes the likelihood of a person incubating a case of COVID very high, having a case without symptoms. , ”Itkin said. “Even when trying hard to be safe, there are some opportunities like in the washroom where people can mingle closely.”

Cities and school districts hold deliberation sessions if they have passed Senate Bill 2. It’s similar to a traditional New England town hall meeting where voters run the business of the city by debating and changing proposed mandate items, including city budgets, expenditures, and ordinances. The only difference is that the final approval of questions is done in the voting booth on March 9.

Communities have struggled in recent weeks over how to organize the required annual meetings, which typically take place in late January or early February, while minimizing health risks to city residents. Once the meeting is posted, the municipalities can by law only postpone it in 72 hour increments.

What the cities of the coast are doing

On January 22, Governor Chris Sununu issued an executive order authorizing cities to postpone deliberative sessions and move voting day to the first Tuesday in April, May, June, or July. The order reflects a bill approved in the Senate, but it was unlikely to pass in the House until February.

Several Seacoast communities took advantage of the order, including Rollinsford and Rye, by postponing meetings.

Other communities, like Barrington, Exeter, East Kingston, Greenland, Hampton, Kensington, Newfields and Seabrook, decided Sununu’s order was too small, too late. Terms of reference had been posted and they had already made the decision to go ahead with the meetings.

“Delaying the meeting would delay hiring, road works and other budget items,” said Greenland city administrator Matt Scruton, whose city was planning to hold its meeting on Saturday, January 30.

The Exeter Select board voted last week to move forward with hosting an in-person deliberation on February 6, as delaying it and the March election would cause problems for the cooperative school district. All other towns in SAU 16 are moving forward with face-to-face meetings and a delay in Exeter would delay school budgets and teacher contracts.

New Hampshire Assistant Secretary of State David Scanlan said the state had left the decision to hold in-person city meetings to local leaders.

“We created options on how to conduct elections, town halls, and town halls,” Scanlon said. “If the cities have a facility large enough that they feel it is safe to do so, they can choose to move forward. Otherwise, or if locals are uncomfortable, they can set up a virtual meeting and then allow ballot voting, as HB 1129, adopted last year, allows. “

Last year, the state legislature approved HB 1129, allowing cities to hold virtual deliberative sessions, but it does not allow voters to make changes to proposed articles on mandates or to vote on them. . Instead, he calls on residents to submit proposed amendments to the board of directors, who would then be the final arbiters. The bill also required a drive-thru voting setup where voters could outright reject the emergency voting procedure, removing all mandate articles except the budget from the ballot.

Officials said their communities chose not to go virtual because they felt it took too much power away from the electorate. Some also feared a return of voters in the form of a categorical vote against the emergency procedure and a complete rejection of the mandate.

Hampton Budget Committee Chairman Brian Warburton speaks about the proposed operating budget during the city's deliberative session on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021 at Hampton Academy.

“We absolutely felt that HB 1129 did not meet the public voting responsibilities for the town meeting,” said Hampton City Manager Jamie Sullivan. “Deliberative sitting is the way democracy should work, it is the people who should run their government.”

Officials in cities holding deliberative sessions said they followed all state and CDC guidelines, including wearing masks and six feet of social distancing.

Hampton Town moderator Bob Casassa said town leaders were confident they could hold a meeting safely, also scheduled for Saturday, January 30. Residents were asked to wear masks and chairs six feet apart in the gymnasium at Hampton Academy to ensure social distancing. Although the city cannot mandate the wearing of a mask to participate, Casassa said non-maskers would be invited to sit in a separate community hall where they could still vote and participate in the meeting.

Other communities had similar protocols in place for non-mask wearers, with the exception of East Kingston, which announced that only residents wearing masks would be allowed to participate in the deliberation at the school primary.

“From where I’m standing it’s pretty straightforward to stick to the mask rule,” East Kingston Selectmen chairman Justin Lyons said. “If you are not prepared to consider the health of your fellow citizens and wear a mask, then no, you will not be allowed to enter the building.”

Exeter City Moderator Paul Scafidi said they are giving voters the choice of how they attend the February 6 meeting in the city. Voters can participate from their cars in the parking lots ahead of the EHS, sit in the auditorium if they are wearing a mask, or in the small gymnasium if they are not wearing a mask.

A number of communities are also planning to broadcast or broadcast their deliberation sessions so that residents interested in a particular mandate article can follow along and show up for the session with less time to vote.

Scruton said Greenland will also have a Zoom feed. People can log into Zoom but will not be allowed to vote.

“Voters have to be here, to be registered,” Scruton said. “The vote and the amendments will take place at school. It would be too complicated to get Zoom listeners to vote. How would we verify them? How would we do a secret ballot? It is up to residents whether they choose to come or stay and watch from their homes. “

Epping City Manager Greg Dodge said the city will allow residents who watch Zoom to change articles of the warrant. He said the city moderator and election officials will check residents by their faces and they may need to present photo ID on Zoom to be checked off the voter checklist.

Seabrook City Manager Bill Manzi said the best thing cities can do is offer every possible safety precaution if they go ahead with a deliberative session.

“Of course, we are concerned about the public gathering in an indoor space, it is not related to responsibility, but it is for the sake of public health,” Manzi said. “It seems like everything we do now comes with some risk, so our board has tried to balance the public health risk of having a deliberating session versus their government responsibilities. Where is this balance? I can’t say it, but everyone has tough decisions to make.

Hampton's Nichole Duggan uses the disinfection station as Hampton holds its town deliberations on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021 at Hampton Academy.

Public health risk

Martha Wassell, director of infection control at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital, said she found it disheartening that townspeople had to choose between safety and the tallying of their votes.

“Cities that hold meetings on the regular schedule basically tell people they have to attend in person to vote,” Wassell said. “In some cases, people have to choose between breaking the law. If they are in quarantine or have been exposed to a potentially infectious person, they could decide to go and vote. “

Wassell’s advice to anyone considering attending their town hall or town hall meeting is to take the risk very seriously.

“Make sure you practice social distancing,” she said. “Follow the mask respect and wash your hands often. “

Karen Dandurant contributed to this report.

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