By DAMIEN FISHER, I DepthNH.org
Doug Bates didn’t start out to break news when he retired to Nottingham in 2018, but his substack blog on town politics is becoming a must read by journalists throughout the state.
He’s broken news about former state Rep. Ben Bartlett’s Hatch Act violation, and the possible links to House Speaker Sherman Packard’s Office. He reported the town’s firing of Fire Chief Jaye Vilchock, as well as dozens of incidents in the town of 4,700.
It started with a dirt road. Bates was still new to Nottingham when he learned about the class action lawsuit over 18 town roads, including the road where he lives.
The problem Bates found was that outside of Town Hall and the people involved in the lawsuit, most of Nottingham’s residents were in the dark.
Selectmen changed town rules in 2020, abandoning these dirt roads where hundreds of families resided.
“People were uninformed and it was difficult for anyone to get correct information,” Bates said.
After a career in marketing, Bates started putting his skills to good use, publishing a blog about the roads lawsuit that informed the whole town about what was going on.
Informed by Bates, voters bucked the selectboard at the 2021 Town Meeting and made all 18 roads the town’s responsibility.
The road lawsuit exposed a genuine problem to Bates, the lack of reliable news.
The town, close to Manchester and the Seacoast, is simply too small for larger news operations to cover regularly. Seeing as he had time, Bates decided to do it himself.
Bates now tracks town politics, watching hours of Youtube meetings and combing through town documents. All his articles are published free on his site, nottingham.substack.com. The goal isn’t to make money, but to keep his neighbors and community informed.
As he’s kept going, people are comfortable confiding in Bates, slipping him major tips about what’s going on, like the Hatch Act violation involving Bartlett.
Bates was first to report Bartlett resigned last year because he was found to have violated the federal law prohibiting federal employees from holding partisan political offices.
Bartlett, a Republican, won his seat in 2022. He also happens to be an employee with the Veterans Administration.
Bartlett cited poor health when he resigned from the House April 26, 2023, two days after Bates got an anonymous tip about the violation. Bartlett was suspended from his Veterans Administration job for 15 days after a federal investigation. He continues to serve as a Nottingham selectman.
Bartlett’s suspension from the Veterans Administration was announced Oct. 31, 2023, a little over a month after Speaker Packard received a letter from the Attorney General’s Office detailing an unrelated investigation into former Republican Rep. Troy Merner’s residency.
Merner has since been charged with voter fraud after he allegedly voted in Lancaster’s municipal elections despite having moved out of town. He’s also accused of filing false mileage reimbursements with the House.
It later became public that Packard first became aware of Merner’s residency issue before the legislative session started, but said he believed Merner who at the time continued to claim residency in Lancaster.
Merner was allegedly claiming mileage to Concord from Lancaster, even though he was living in Carroll while he served in the House.
Bate’s scoop about Bartlett raised questions about what Packard knew about Bartlett’s Hatch Act problems and when he knew about them.
Bates was also first to report Vilchock and his wife, Lt. Sandra Vilchock, were in trouble after firefighters reported their alleged unprofessional behavior to the town. Jaye Vilchock is currently suing the town to get his job back. A trial in that case is set for later this year.
Bates credits his late father-in-law, investigative journalist Thomas D. Miller, for his inspiration. Miller kept writing well into his golden years, before illness stopped his work. Bates has no plans to stop anytime soon.
“I’m in good health, so we’ll see,” he said.
Bates is becoming a fixture for the town, gathering more support with every story. He jokes his blog has more subscribers than some elected officials have votes.
Bates has shown, again, there is a need for local news, especially when communities like his are ignored by traditional media. Technology makes it easier for people like Bates to get involved, but the future is anyone’s guess.
“This is an experiment in citizen journalism,” Bates said. “We don’t know how well this is going to turn out.”