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Town governments close doors, tackle legal issues surrounding public meetings held remotely

  • The Wilton Selectboard meeting on Monday evening via a livestream channel. Courtesy image

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/24/2020 1:19:58 PM

Most town governments have either closed outright or are operating on an appointment-only basis in an effort to protect residents and staff from spreading the COVID-19 virus. Municipal officials continue to receive guidance from the state to determine how to conduct essential town business without jeopardizing public health, while complying with the law.

Governor Sununu passed Emergency Order 12 on March 23, which allows for public meetings to be conducted electronically “while preserving, to the extent feasible, the public’s right to notice of such meetings and ability to observe and listen contemporaneously.” The order also waives the requirement that a quorum of the public body be physically present, as well as the requirement that a meeting be audible to the public at the meeting location, so long as municipalities provide public access by telephone and insure notice prior to and access during all parts of the meeting.

The emergency order addresses some of the requests made to the Governor last Friday by the New Hampshire Municipal Association. The association provides legal support for town governments, among other resources.

Before the emergency order, although towns like Hancock, Peterborough, and Wilton are encouraging residents to participate via conference call, email, or instant messaging, municipal governments couldn’t technically prevent a member of the public from attending a meeting in a public space, NHMA Executive Director Margaret Burns said. “So many of our board members are volunteers, and many are volunteers who are also retired folks,” Burns said. Doing away with the public physical requirement for meetings keeps vulnerable, elderly board members as well as residents safe, she said.

The Municipal Association has not received any complaints of Right to Know violations during the state of emergency so far, Burns said, nor has she seen any evidence that municipalities are taking advantage of the emergency to violate the intent of Right to Know laws. “None of the questions or comments of municipal members suggest that anyone is trying to do anything other than keep people safe and comply with the law,” she said. It’s unlikely that the procedural changes made during the current state of emergency could set precedents for long-term changes in procedure, Burns said. “Our municipalities understand circumstances are extreme and unique,” she said. 

The Municipal Association’s letter to the Governor additionally requested other variances to the Right to Know Law, including allowing public hearings to be conducted remotely, and waiving response deadlines for Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals applications.  The letter also requested that e-signatures be allowed on municipal documents, and that towns not be legally required to hold public meetings on regular schedules or at regular intervals. For towns that have not yet had their Town Meetings, the Association requests that absentee voting can be used, that officers can be sworn in within 30 days regardless of when the Town Meeting is held, and that towns can extend the past year’s budget until the new budget can be approved. The Municipal Association is also seeking guidance on postponing building inspections, and conducting town business on an appointment-only basis, Burns said. “This is what they need to serve citizens in a safe way. My feeling is that most citizens know this is what municipalities need to do,” she said.

In New Ipswich, the town office, police station, and fire station are open on an appointment-only basis. “Parks & Recreation has canceled all events/activities to eliminate groups from congregating to reduce possible exposure to the Coronavirus,” Town Administrator Scott W. Butcher wrote. “We are encouraging residents to do as much business with the town using online tools and by e-mail as is practical.” Butcher wrote that protecting first responders from exposure was the most important priority for the town. “In a small community like ours, the loss of one member of the team due to exposure can have a dramatic impact and strain the remaining resources,” he wrote.

In Peterborough, Select Board meetings are being streamed on Facebook Live in a process that is going “relatively smoothly,” Assistant to the Town Administration Ali Kreutz said, and that public comments appeared to be recorded and addressed. In Wilton, members of boards who were elected on March 10 haven’t been sworn in yet, but Janice Pack, Wilton’s Town Administrative Assistant, described it as a moot point since the boards aren’t meeting. She had not received complaints about the town’s live streamed meetings, and said that, although the town’s website listed Monday’s Select Board meeting as “LIVE STREAM ONLY,” she said that technically, they could not bar residents from attending in person. Since the town offices have been closed to the public, Pack said that at one point she offered a resident her own computer in the office to renew a dog license who didn’t have another way to do it.

“I don’t want to get in to that mode, ‘We’re gonna cancel everything through May,’” Jaffrey Town Manager Jon Frederick said, but that the town was determining how to handle public meetings during the pandemic after developing a new system for day to day operations in the last week. The town’s next scheduled public meeting is March 30. “We’re determining, do we have to have these meetings, is there any business that pressing, [and] how best to do it to make sure the transparency piece is still honored,” he said, and that the town is receiving guidance from the Municipal Association. Town Meeting has been postponed until April 18. “I hope like crazy we’re going to be able to have it,” Frederick said.

Bennington town offices remained open as of Monday. “We have checked with our employees to determine their comfort level with remaining open to the public. All of our employees are comfortable with that decision at this point,” Town Administrator Kristie LaPlante wrote. The Bennington Library is closed, but fulfilling customer requests with a curbside service. The transfer station remains open, but recycling is suspended.

Last week, Rindge held a Planning Board meeting in the parking lot outside the town offices, Select Board member Roberta Oeser said, and that the town is determining how best to complete essential town business legally while following CDC recommendations and keeping their town offices safe for employees.

Department of Motor Vehicle facilities have closed statewide. Appointment-only service is available at Manchester, Dover, Twin Mountain, Concord, and Newport. Driver’s licenses have been extended for six months but the driver must call the DMV to get their license extended at 227-4000. Temporary licensed plates issued on or after Feb. 26 have been extended until the end of April. Residents must collect permanent plates from town offices for vehicles with temporary plates issued prior to Feb. 26. Vehicle registrations still need to be renewed though town offices, but many towns in the region are encouraging residents to mail forms whenever possible, and are collecting necessary documents and payments in drop boxes. In the Antrim Town Clerk’s office, credit card payments can be made over the phone. 

Antrim: Town offices are staffed but closed until further notice. Public meetings and hearings have been postponed through April 6.

Bennington: Town offices are open, public meetings are being addressed on a case-by-case basis, the Select Board continues to meet as scheduled.

Dublin: Town offices are closed and the Town Clerk/Tax Collector is requesting that residents conduct business by telephone and mail. Public meetings are suspended except for emergencies until town officials review legal guidance on virtual meetings from the state. 

Francestown: Town offices are staffed but closed, by appointment only. The Select Board continues to meet publicly, and town officials are reviewing legal guidance from the state for virtual meetings.

Greenfield: Town offices are closed, public meetings are canceled on a case by case basis until town officials review legal guidance from the state.

Greenville: Town offices are staffed but closed, meetings are canceled.

Hancock: Town offices are staffed but closed through April 6. The Select Board is still meeting as scheduled, and will be posting a conference call number on the agenda for the public to listen as well as speak. There is currently no video capability.

Jaffrey: Town offices are staffed but closed, public meetings are still scheduled March 30 and beyond, and town officials are determining how to maintain public safety and protect transparency at upcoming meetings deemed essential.

Lyndeborough: Town offices are closed but staffed, public meetings are addressed on a case by case basis. Any meeting that does take place shall observe the practice of social distancing and wiping down all affected areas.

Mason: Town offices are closed, information on reaching town offices can be found on the town website. Public meetings are canceled through April 3.

New Ipswich: Town offices are staffed but closed, by appointment only through April 1, must call 878-2772. Public meetings are regularly scheduled.

Rindge: Town offices are closed, public meetings are being considered on a case-by-case basis.

Peterborough: Town offices are staffed, but closed to the public and on an appointment only basis as of March 23. Public meetings are being streamed on Facebook Live where the public can comment, or they can submit comments by email to selectboard@peterboroughnh.gov, or by phone to (603) 924-8000 ext. 101.

Sharon: Town offices are closed to the public except by appointment, public meetings are canceled for a month. The Select Board will determine when to meet if an emergency comes up.

Temple: Town offices are staffed, but closed to the public; call 878-3873 for town business or more information. Public meetings will be conducted remotely via conference call until further notice. Residents can call in via a pin number posted with the meeting agenda.

Wilton: Town offices are staffed but closed, and public meetings are ongoing. Town officials request the public view the livestream and email public comment rather than attending in person.


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