By NANCY WEST, InDepthNH.org
After 38 years as a state Representative, David Cote will not attend Wednesday’s first House session that will take place in cars in Durham because of underlying health conditions and a confusing response to his request for accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Cote, a Nashua Democrat who has cerebral palsy and coronary artery disease, said he doesn’t understand why the House leadership didn’t opt to allow him and all 400 members to participate remotely for the constitutionally required Convening Day. On Wednesday, the House will elect its Speaker, expected to be Acting Speaker Sherman Packard, and vote on new rules and amendments among other business.
Cote wants to serve the constituents who have re-elected him since he was 22, but believes they understand he can’t put his life at risk because of COVID-19.
“It’s an individual decision and everyone’s situation is obviously different. I made the decision that it is too dangerous in my case,” Cote said.
Thursday’s inauguration of Gov. Chris Sununu at noon is also unusual because he cancelled an outdoor event on the State House lawn out of safety concerns citing what he calls armed protesters who have picketed his home in Newfields. But groups and individuals who oppose mask wearing or who believe Sununu’s declarations of emergency are unconstitutional say they will protest the inauguration at the State House anyway.
The state Supreme Court has issued an advisory ruling saying it would be constitutional to allow the House to meet remotely, but Packard said there is no rule presently allowing remote sessions.
Cote also cited the state Senate, which is meeting with its 24 members remotely on Wednesday. To view the Senate session for Convening Day, the public can live stream it at http://sg001-harmony.sliq.net/00286/Harmony/en/View/Calendar/20210106/-1. It will be live at 10 a.m.
The link to live stream the House session Wednesday: http://nhhouse.edifymultimedia.com/
Cote requested ADA accommodations and said he received a response that was unclear, but implied he could get a ride to the drive-in movie type session because he doesn’t drive. It was unclear and Cote said he doesn’t believe it would be safe.
“I have the greatest respect for my constituents, but I never thought being elected involved signing a suicide pact,” Cote said.
The notice on the House calendar detailing how the 400 House members will meet in their cars Wednesday in a parking lot at the University of New Hampshire in Durham raised many questions, Cote said.
He was also concerned that there were only 10 socially distanced seats available for public viewing on a first-come, first serve basis.
House Clerk Paul Smith said the House is doing the best it can to keep everyone safe and at the last UNH legislative session only two members of the public wanted to attend in person.
Smith said there will be 10 portable toilets available and open-air transportation for House members to get to them.
The House will hear the election outcomes from Secretary of State Bill Gardner and vote on new rules and amendments that range from minor clerical changes to whether the House should in fact allow remote sessions during the pandemic.
According to the House calendar “roaming safety marshals will be working throughout the arena to encourage continued use of PPE, and minimizing the amount of time members are out of their vehicles.”
When lawmakers want to speak, a staffer will bring a microphone to their car and he or she can speak from inside by rolling down the window or step outside. Once outside their car, everyone is required to wear a face covering, Smith said.
The session will also be streamed by radio to House members in the parking lot. The temperature is expected to be in the upper 30s in Durham.
“I’m dressing warm,” said Smith, who will be outside the whole time.
Whether House members can bring other people with them in their cars will be decided on a case-by-case basis for people who don’t drive, Smith said.
The press has been advised that the parking lot, A-Lot, is considered the House Chamber for the purposes of the event, and just as during sessions in Representatives Hall at the State House, there will be restrictions on accessing “the chamber floor.” Reporters have been asked to stay in the designated viewing area, or public areas around the parking lot and won’t have access to legislators on “the chamber floor.”
Copies of the amendments recommended by the House Rules committee are available in the House Calendar. Additional amendments may be moved on the floor, provided that they are submitted to the House clerk no later than the close of business Tuesday.
According to the House calendar, under Part 2, Article 85 of the New Hampshire Constitution, Sununu must take his oath of office in the presence of both houses of the Legislature. “The Department of Justice has advised Legislative leadership that a quorum is not required for either body in order to view the governor’s swearing in, because in those circumstances neither body is taking an official action or conducting business. Therefore, Part 2, Article 85’s requirement that the governor take his oath of office in the presence of both houses of the Legislature will be satisfied if the Governor takes his oath of office in the presence of the leadership of both the House and Senate.”
Ben Vihstadt, Gov. Chris Sununu’s spokesman, said Sununu has invited Democrats and Republicans and the complete list of guests will be released when it is finalized. It will also be live streamed.
Disability rights activists say they plan to demonstrate disapproval of the drive-in House session with a peaceful demonstration Wednesday.
In response to the NH House Speaker, disability rights activists and Granite Staters will gather to demonstrate disapproval of the ‘drive-in voting session’ when the House of Representatives, they said in a press release.
“These drive-in sessions put vulnerable legislators and their families at risk, are terrible for air quality due to cars idling for hours on end and discourage public participation in house proceedings while also creating a lack of transparency,” said the organizer of the protest, Juliana Good, a disability rights activist and UNH graduate student. “A remote meeting by video conference, like the state Senate will be having at the same time, is the safe, simple, and accessible solution.”
Andrew Manuse, a former legislator who started ReOpen NH, which is now called ReBuildNH, said his group and others will be protesting at the State House Thursday.
“We are protesting the governor’s continued abuse of authority and violation of the constitution” in declaring the state of emergency, he said.
Manuse doesn’t believe face masks are needed or effective and said the government exaggerates the dangers of COVID-19. He said other groups that have formed, including the New Hampshire Safety Commission and Absolute Defiance will be protesting at the State House as well.
“People are beside themselves trying to figure out what to do to stop the tyranny,” Manuse said, adding he does not support picketing at Sununu’s private residence.