By Thomas P. Caldwell, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — With the conclusion of the Governor’s Emergency Order on the coronavirus, the New Hampshire House ended representatives’ ability to participate remotely, requiring them instead to attend in person. Similarly, the Zoom meetings that allowed Granite State residents to remotely participate in the meetings also disappeared. They, too, must attend in person if they wish to speak.
That leaves open the question of live-streaming, which would allow people to observe their representatives in action, even if they could not testify. Many committee meetings do not allow public testimony, anyway.
The problem with live-streaming, according to House Chief of Staff Aaron Goulette, is that there are more than 20 policy committees. It was easy to livestream the full House and Senate sessions, but they ended in June. Now the work is taking place in committee.
“We are evaluating if streaming every meeting of our twenty-plus policy committees is feasible in the near- and long-term,” Goulette said in an email. “While this evaluation takes place, some meetings of high interest may be streamed. If streaming is available for a particular meeting, it will be posted on the General Court website and social channels.”
House Communications Director Jennifer Tramp said essentially the same thing, adding, “The Speaker is aware of risk mitigation guidance and best practices set forth by state and national public health agencies. The Speaker and General Court staff have worked to find solutions within the guidance to help provide a risk-mitigated environment to the extent our efforts do not compromise our ability to comply with statutes or House Rules.
“We ask all attendees to self-screen for any signs of illness prior to entry to the complex or attending meetings. We provide temporal scanning in each building so attendees may monitor themselves for fever. We provide PPE throughout each building. Each building has a touchpoint sanitization schedule. Each meeting room and most common areas are treated by HEPA air filtration with UVC light to reduce airborne contagions. We encourage mask use.”
Neither Goulette nor Tramp responded to repeated requests for clarification on who decides whether a committee meeting is of “high interest” and merits live-streaming.
House Bill 108, which Gov. Chris Sununu has signed into law, created a study committee to look into remote meetings, but the committee has not yet formed. According to the provisions of the bill, the committee will include three House members and two senators who will look into how meetings can be structured and to what extent remote access can take place. The committee is charged with filing a report by Nov. 1.
On Aug. 20, House Speaker Sherman Packard issued guidelines for state representatives, saying that, with the end of the COVID-related state of emergency, Emergency Order 12, which allowed public bodies to meet remotely without a physical quorum present, also ended. “Likewise, House Rule 67 (d) which defined a quorum present to include a quorum of a committee meeting virtually, is also no longer in effect as a result of the expiration of the state of emergency,” he wrote. That means that there must be a quorum physically attending to transact business.
Packard also specified that all legislative meetings will take place in the Legislative Office Building, “and the public will have access to all public meetings, pursuant to RSA 91-A:2 II.” He noted that new air filtration systems are in place, and that personal protective equipment is available to keep people safe, although masks are not required.
Although the state of emergency has ended, the number of COVID-19 cases in the state has been rising. Wednesday’s meeting of the Governor and Executive Council, scheduled to take place at Saint Anselm College, was abruptly canceled when the governor fell ill and isolated himself as a precaution against the virus. Ultimately, testing showed he had not contacted COVID-19.
Still, many people are reluctant to return to in-person meetings because of the fear of contracting the virus which is affecting even those who were vaccinated.
Municipal And School Meetings
Rep. Edward “Ned” Gordon, R-Bristol, said there was general agreement in the legislature that committee members should be present in person, and that there should be a physical location where members of the public who did not have internet access could go. At the same time, the legislature favored having some electronic means of participating, like Zoom.
Gordon also serves as moderator of the Newfound Area School District and the town of Bristol, and he said that, at the local level, there is nothing to prevent a town or school district from streaming their meetings, but they are not required to do so.
“It is certainly available to any organization that wants to allow that to happen, and many communities do so,” he said. “If, for example, in our town of Bristol, if the selectmen wish to continue to have selectmen’s meetings and have the public be able to participate as they have been, they can continue to do so.”
There are larger issues when it comes to voting at town or school district meetings, however. Gordon said that, while he tries to use voice votes, sometimes a warrant article has to go to a ballot vote, and that requires being on a voter registration list.
“I’m not exactly sure how that would work over Zoom,” he said.
Gordon said he concerned about the integrity of the vote as opportunities expand. “Historically, in New Hampshire, we’ve had a high level of confidence in our elections,” he said. “Before the last election, last fall, I heard a number of 86 percent of New Hampshire citizens were confident in New Hampshire elections. Of course, a lot has happened since last November, but I think the more you allow people to participate remotely, through mail-in ballots, or otherwise, I think the level of confidence will go down, and that does concern me.”
He is worried about technology disenfranchising people, as well. “These proposals in the legislature to allow meetings to be held completely remotely — how does that work for people who don’t have broadband access or, frankly, some my constituents, people right here in town who are older and never became particularly computer savvy — how does it affect them? Are they disenfranchised from participating in our government? So all of those issues concern me.”