Despite pandemic, some Town Meeting sessions remain in-person, indoors

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/12/2021 9:56:18 PM
Modified: 1/13/2021 2:44:48 PM

LEBANON — Logistical and legal hurdles surrounding Town Meeting procedures have led at least two Upper Valley communities to schedule in-person sessions this month, despite calls from public health officials to avoid large gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Lebanon School District and the town of Grafton both plan to hold indoor deliberative sessions — where voters can debate and amend warrant articles from the floor — the morning of Saturday, Jan. 30.

Meanwhile, officials with the town of Canaan and the Mascoma Valley Regional School District say they’re likely to follow suit.

That’s mainly because the alternative is “unworkable,” according to Canaan Town Administrator Mike Samson.

A New Hampshire law passed last year to assist municipalities during the pandemic says towns and school districts can forgo their annual floor meeting, including a deliberative session, for a virtual option. The law calls for two remote information sessions, followed by a subsequent ballot vote to ratify both the decision to have met remotely and various articles on the warrant.

But many people, including seniors who aren’t as tuned in to technology, and rural residents with poor internet connections, wouldn’t be able to make the virtual meetings, Samson said Tuesday.

He added that residents also wouldn’t be able to amend the warrant remotely, which could diminish voters’ say in how their taxes are spent.

“If it’s possible to do it safely and do it in the normal timing, that’s what our goal is,” Samson said.

Many towns and school districts have cited similar troubles with the law and are choosing in-person sessions, according to Laura Spector-Morgan, an attorney at the Laconia, N.H., firm Mitchell Municipal Group.

While the remote meeting law, HB 1129, was well-intended, she said, it doesn’t allow voters to amend warrant articles and lacks some statutory time limits found in other election statutes.

“Most of the towns we’re working with are opting not to use that process,” said Spector-Morgan, who has represented the Upper Valley towns of Hanover, Piermont and Grafton.

Instead, some election and municipal officials hope that a new bill, SB 2, will provide another path forward.

Sponsored by Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester, the legislation would loosen the restrictions on postponing floor or ballot sessions of Town Meeting for 2021, allowing moderators more leeway to set new dates.

But while the New Hampshire Senate fast-tracked the bill, approving it this month, it hit a roadblock in the House, which instead plans to first schedule a committee hearing.

That means municipalities that split up their meetings into deliberative sessions and ballot votes — like Grafton, Canaan, the Lebanon School District and Mascoma — likely won’t be able to make use of the bill before their respective floor meetings later this month.

Mascoma Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said her district will likely push forward with an in-person meeting this month, both because the new legislation won’t make it in time and because of “challenges” coordinating remote meetings with residents in five towns — Enfield, Canaan, Grafton, Dorchester and Orange.

If that’s the case, the district’s deliberative session would be held inside the high school auditorium, which can hold about 100 socially distanced people, with overflow space in the nearby cafeteria, she said.

“I would say we could accommodate 200 people with the main auditorium site and a few satellite sites very comfortably,” Isabelle said.

Samson, the Canaan town administrator, said his town’s deliberative session also is looking into using Mascoma Valley Regional High School as a site.

On its website, the Lebanon School District says its deliberative session will be held inside the Lebanon Middle School gymnasium and, although they cannot vote remotely, people can watch proceedings online. Grafton’s session is set to be held inside the town’s fire station.

But while officials say masks will be required at all of the events, public health experts continue to warn about the danger of in-person gatherings, including Town Meeting, while community transmission of the coronavirus remains high.

“Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health continues to advise against large gatherings until a larger percentage of the population is vaccinated, especially when remote technology can be utilized,” Jose Mercado, a hospital epidemiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, said in a statement Tuesday.

“Current guidelines suggest not to spend more than 15 minutes in a 24-hour period in contact with people you don’t live with,” he added.

Alice Ely, director of the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley, also urged people to remain vigilant and on-guard against the virus, saying that the current vaccine rollout isn’t expected to protect the general public for several months.

“If people are thinking that between now and March — when Town Meetings are generally going to happen — that a significant portion of our population is going to be protected, I think that’s a vast overestimation,” she said.

Meanwhile, Vermont officials are working to avoid similar issues during traditional Town Meeting season in March.

While directives in Vermont allowed towns to mail Town Meeting ballots to all registered voters, postpone annual meetings, and conduct a drive-thru polling place last year, those measures expired at the start of 2021. But the Legislature is working to reinstate those measures, Will Senning, Vermont’s director of elections, wrote in a letter to municipal election officials.

Senning added that towns and school districts can still vote to adopt an Australian ballot system for voting this year.

Voter-backed petitions still require signatures, but selectboards in Vermont can choose to waive the petition requirement. And candidates wishing to add their name to a ballot won’t require signatures but must complete the consent form and submit it to the town clerk.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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