Dozens of towns and districts haven’t held annual meetings. What now?

Jaffrey Town Meeting was postponed Saturday, March 14, 2020. Staff Photo/Meghan Pierce

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CONCORD, NH — All over New Hampshire, people are trying to figure out how to maintain that cherished institution of gathering people together for town meeting when we’re not supposed to gather together.

Some possibilities being tossed around are, shall we say, interesting.

“We streamed the meeting on YouTube last year. One idea this year is … we have 30 classrooms, if we can get 10 people in a classroom, that’s allowed, and then YouTube it to every classroom,” said Steven Chamberlin, superintendent of the Hopkinton School District, which postponed its March 14 annual meeting as the severity of COVID-19 became clear. Votes would have be collected in each room and gathered together for counting under this idea, which Chamberlin said was one of several being considered.

That sounds convoluted but it’s no more complicated than the system Bow School District has planned, with a video feed of the meeting followed by days of phone and email comment and then another live feed discussing the comments and then a day of drive-by voting where people will bring ballots printed at home to the parking lot of the high school and hand them to masked and gloved volunteers through the car window.

Bow was supposed to do this last week but the video fizzled, so it’s set for this week.

Bow and Hopkinton are among at least 40 government bodies in New Hampshire – school systems and towns and water or sewer or fire districts – that had their annual meeting postponed by the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, throwing budgets and contracts and schedules out of whack. Some have had to postpone meetings twice after their first makeup date proved too optimistic.

Now they’re trying to figure out how to proceed.

“The traditional technique is gone, getting everybody in the gym. The question is: Is there another method that will work and is legal?” Chamberlin said, adding with a tinge of regret: “We were very close. We were still having it up to the day before, then we had an outpouring of concern, so we pulled the trigger.”

According to the state Department of Revenue Administration, this issue is being chewed over by five regional schools districts, including Winnisquam, eight one-town school districts including Bow, 11 towns including Henniker and Loudon, and 15 of what are called village districts, which mostly cover specific services such as a water system, including Tilton-Northfield Fire District.

For all of these, annual meetings are the legislative body of the entity and under state law their approval is needed to set budgets, allow spending, borrow money and sign contacts. And set property tax rates, which is why the DRA knows about them.

They operate under a thicket of regulations, laws and contractual obligations.

“We’re looking at what we think is the last date to meet the statutory requirement to sign a teachers contract. … You have to have a budget before you sign a contract,” said Chamberlin.

The town of Henniker has rescheduled its town meeting for May 9, the first Saturday after Gov. Sununu’s stay-at-home order is set to lift. Even if the order is not extended there are still uncertainties since people are unlikely to want to gather in crowds so soon after being released from quarantine, and social isolation rules would complicate things even if they do gather.

“If the weather is nice, maybe we could hold it in the parking lot,” mused Henniker Town Moderator Cordell Johnston. “One town in Massachusetts was talking about doing that, I think.”

Government bodies have been wrestling with smaller versions of this problem for a coupe of weeks, with most turning to video-conferencing software like Zoom to hold public meetings. That would be difficult for an annual meeting where hundreds of people participate at once.

“There has been some discussion, not in Henniker we haven’t talked about it but in other towns, whether it would be possible to hold a town meeting by Zoom or something like that. I think theoretically it would be but logistically that would be a serous challenge – also a question of whether it would be legal,” Johnston said.

Complicating matters are state laws, which have built up over more than a century to enable public access and procedures. Nobody wants to develop a technical way to hold a meeting only to have the results thrown out in court later on.

“We would not be wiling to consider that unless we got either a very clear opinion from the attorney general’s office or some kind of order from the governor authorizing it,” said Johnston.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

Meetings in waiting

These New Hampshire local governments have not yet held their annual meeting, according to the Department of Revenue Administration:

School districts:

Lincoln-Woodstock Regional School

Lisbon Regional School

Profile Regional School

Rivendell Regional School

Winnisquam Regional School

Bethlehem School

Bow School

Chesterfield School  

Haverhill School  

Hopkinton School

Moultonborough School

Waterville  Estates School

Towns:

Chester

Enfield

Henniker  

Hollis

Jaffrey

Loudon  

Moultonborough

Nelson

Nottingham  

Peterborough

Plainfield

Stratham

Village Districts:

Bay Sewer District

Breezy Gale District

Bridgewater-Hebron Village

Center Ossipee Fire

Copple Crown Village

Eastman Village District

Granite Lake Village

Grasmere Village Water

Haverhill Corner

Highland Haven (Washington)

Newfields Sewer

North Walpole Village

Rollinsford Water & Sewer

Rye Water District

Tilton-Northfield Fire

Waterville Estates

 


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