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Exeter, NH moves ahead with Town Meeting despite COVID concerns

Exeter moves ahead with Town Meeting despite COVID concerns

By Alexander LaCasse
alacasse@seacoastonline.com

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Selectwoman Lovey Roundtree Oliff said she was frustrated the board spent several meetings discussing how to hold a safe, remote deliberative session only to end up being forced to hold a live session at Exeter High School because other SAU 16 communities are going ahead with their deliberative sessions in-person.

EXETER – The Select Board is moving forward with the first half of Town Meeting Feb 6. despite the governor approving an executive order that allows towns to postpone annual meetings and elections due to the COVID pandemic. 

The board said they had no other choice Monday but to move ahead with the deliberative session, or the business portion of Town Meeting, because all the other communities within SAU 16 are moving ahead with theirs. 

Town Moderator Paul Scafidi told the Select Board the annual meeting will be held Feb. 6 at Exeter High School beginning at 9 a.m., and the town will allow voters a choice on how they participate. Voters can participate from their cars in the front parking lots at EHS, sit in the auditorium if wearing a mask or in the small gymnasium if they are not wearing a mask. 

Town and school districts hold deliberative sessions if they adopted Senate Bill 2. It’s similar to a traditional New England Town Meeting where voters conduct the town’s business by approving budgets, expenditures, and town ordinances. The only difference is the actual “yeas” or “nays” are done out of the spotlight and in the voting booth on March 9.

Major items on the warrant include the town’s $19,891,082 budget and a $3.62 million bond to finance the construction of a solar array at the town’s transfer station, which carries no tax impact because of the energy savings realized from the production of clean electricity.

During Monday’s discussion, board members lamented that other SAU 16 communities were forging ahead with their deliberative sessions and essentially forcing the hand of Exeter to follow suit. 

Kate Miller, Exeter Region Cooperative School District moderator, said Monday that teacher contracts and other budgetary items made for too much of a burden for the school moderators of other communities to come to a consensus to postpone each of their deliberative sessions.

An executive order signed Friday by Gov. Chris Sununu gave towns the option to postpone deliberative sessions and to postpone voting day to the first Tuesday of April, May, June or July.

The order mirrors a bill approved in the Senate but was unlikely to pass the House until February. Previously under the law, town moderators were able to postpone deliberative sessions 72 hours and could continue to postpone in 72-increments. 

The executive order came four days after the Exeter Select Board pleaded with the governor to allow towns more flexibility in how they conduct Town Meeting.  

At the time, the Select Board was considering moving forward with a virtual deliberative session that defied what was allowed by state law. 

Last year, the Legislature approved HB 1129 allowing towns to hold virtual town meetings but it didn’t allow for voters to make amendments to proposed warrant articles or vote on them. Instead, it called for residents to submit proposed amendments to the select board, who would then be the final arbitrators. 

For communities that choose HB 1129, it also required a drive-thru voting setup where voters can conversely decide to reject the emergency voting procedure outright, which drops all warrant articles from the ballot.  If that was to occur, towns would then be required to schedule another meeting prior to Sept. 1 to address the operating budget only.

Exeter Select Board members proposed hosting a virtual meeting that would have allowed residents to make amendments and vote, saying HB 1129 eroded the will of the public to amend the warrant. 

The board’s proposal on how to conduct the meeting, however, became mute because the governor’s order only gave them the authority to postpone. 

Selectwoman Lovey Roundtree Oliff voiced her frustration over the board spending multiple hours in several meetings weighing how to offer a safe deliberative session, then voting to go full remote, only to end up where they started with a live session at EHS.  

“I don’t understand why so many hours were spent in discussion for something that was not going to be up to us anyway,” Roundtree Oliff said. “The number of hours that we spent on this conversation seems to be completely null and void if it was only going to come down to what other towns were agreeing to.” 

The majority of other Seacoast communities are also moving forward with their deliberative sessions including Barrington, East Kingston, Epping, Hampton, North Hampton, Kensington, Newfields and Seabrook.

Officials said their communities opted against going virtual under HB 1129 because they felt it stripped out too much power from the voting body. Some also feared blowback from voters in the form of them outright voting down the emergency procedure and rejecting this year’s warrant entirely.

“We absolutely felt HB 1129 doesn’t uphold the public’s voting responsibilities for Town Meeting,” said Hampton Town Manager Jamie Sullivan. “Deliberative session is how democracy should happen, it’s the people who should be leading their government.”

Among Seacoast communities, Epping will be the lone community allowing residents calling in to the meeting or watching on Zoom to amend warrant articles, according to Town Manager Greg Dodge. He said the town moderator and election officials will verify residents by their face and they may need to present a photo ID over Zoom to get checked off on the voter checklist.

Most other communities will stream or broadcast their deliberative session so residents interested in a particular warrant article can follow along and then show up for the session for a lesser amount of time to vote.  

Communities are also taking precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 with some slight variations, such as offering separate rooms for masked and unmasked voters.

East Kingston, for instance, will not allow residents not wearing masks to participate in deliberative session at the elementary school. 

“From where I stand, it’s pretty simple to adhere by the mask rule,” said East Kingston Selectmen Chairman Justin Lyons. “If you are not willing to have consideration for your fellow resident’s health and wear a mask, then no, you will not be allowed in the building.”

Exeter area deliberative sessions 

The majority of other Seacoast communities are also moving forward with their deliberative sessions including Barrington, East Kingston, Epping, Hampton, North Hampton, Kensington, Newfields and Seabrook.

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Epping

Epping voters will debate 25 articles at its town deliberative session, including the town’s proposed $10,267,295 operating budget. 

Also on the warrant is a new police contract. 

Voters will also be asked to approve $40,000 to change the assistant town clerk/tax collector position to full-time and $175,000 for an addition to the Highway Garage. 

Petitioned warrant articles include several funding requests for human services agencies as well as a $5,000 request for new overhead doors for the Fire and Brick Museum. 

Epping will hold its town deliberative session Tuesday, Feb. 2, at 7 p.m. in the Epping Middle School gym. The deliberative session for SAU 14 will be Thursday, Feb. 4, at 7 p.m., also in the Middle School gym.

On the warrant is the school district’s $21,212,650 operating budget. 

Kensington

Voters will debate 16 articles at the town’s deliberative session, including the town’s proposed operating budget of $2,144,916. 

Also on the warrant is a $6,000 request to conduct a build-out analysis for the town, $17,555 to replace police body cameras and $130,000 for road reconstruction.

The Kensington School District will ask voters to approve an operating budget of $3,470,881. Should that not be approved, the default budget will be $3,526,144. Requested appropriations for trust funds include $10,000 for unanticipated special education and $10,000 for repair and maintenance.

Kensington will hold both its town and school deliberative sessions Wednesday, Feb. 3, with the school district at 6 p.m. and the town at 6:30 p.m. Due to concerns about COVID 19, the sessions will be held in SAU 16’s Talbot Gym on Linden Street in Exeter.

Newfields

Newfields residents will be debate five articles in the town deliberative session, including the proposed operating budget of $1,684,120. 

Voters will also be asked to authorize the Select Board to sell the town-owned property at 75 Main St., formerly known as Main Street Art. 

A petitioned warrant article asks voters for $50,000 to reinstate curbside recycling.

Voters in the Newfields School District will be asked to approve an operating budget of $2,806,968 at the school deliberative session. 

The town deliberative session is Thursday, Feb. 4, at 7 p.m. in SAU 16’s Talbot Gym on Linden Street in Exeter. The school district deliberative session is also Thursday, Feb. 4, at 6 p.m.

THE RULES

Procedures for deliberative session:

* Check in with the supervisor of the checklist or you will not be able to vote.

* Wait to speak or ask questions until you are recognized by the moderator.

* State law gives the town moderator the ability to not only run the meeting but establish rules and procedures.

* Amendments to wording can be made to a particular warrant article along as it doesn’t change the subject matter.

* Dollar amounts within an article can be amended as well. Since articles’ amounts can be brought down to $0, residents at deliberative sessions also have the ability to effectively vote down money-related warrant articles.

* Votes are recorded by hand count; anyone can request a secret ballot as long as the request is in writing and signed by five registered voters.

* While the town moderator sets the rules, voters can override the rules, if they see fit, by a majority vote.

Source: N.H. Municipal Association

Communities hosting deliberative sessions are taking precautions to reduce the spread of COVID-19 with some slight variations, such as offering separate rooms for masked and unmasked voters.

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