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Another plan to deal with elections moved by the blizzard: Let the selectmen decide

  • Loudon resident Chuck Cormier battles his way through the snowstorm and back to his truck Tuesday after voting at Loudon Town Hall. Elodie Reed



Monitor staff
Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Another option has been added to the ongoing puzzle about how to cope with town meeting elections that were moved due to the March 14 blizzard: a proposal to allow local elected officials to decide whether the election was legal.

The proposal, which describes itself as “the least detrimental of two unfortunate options,” was put forward in an amendment added to House Bill 329, a bill created to study how municipalities do their billing.

The plan would ratify all elections for offices held by the roughly 73 communities that postponed town meeting voting due to the snowstorm that hit March 14. It would then give the local governing body, such as the select board or the school board, authority to ratify or not ratify everything else that was done by voters, which includes zoning ordinances and, for SB 2 communities, all other town business, including budgets and bonded warrant articles.

This plan differs from a bill approved by the state Senate last week, which said that results of the postponed election could only be ratified by a special election of the community – which is the other “unfortunate option” mentioned by the new proposal.

Critics have balked at the need to hold and pay for another election, and note that a House committee previously rejected a similar proposal.

The new proposal was put forward as an amendment to HB 329 by state Sens. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, and Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead. It was approved last week by the Senate Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee, and will be taken up later by the full Senate. If approved, it would have to then go to the House.

The legal status of postponed annual meeting elections has been questioned because the state is unclear about whether town moderators have the authority to shift the polling day. As a result, bond counsels are not signing off on bonded warrant articles for building or upgrading buildings, purchasing equipment, or doing other town or school work. Those signatures, which let investors know that a bond was created legally, are necessary before communities can sell bonds and raise money to do the work that voters approved – so questions about the legality of the election have left a number of towns and school districts in limbo.

Much of the bill’s text deals with why so many communities made the unprecedented postponement. It points fingers at “advice of lawyers for the New Hampshire Municipal Association and other counsel ... given despite the absence of any mechanism to accommodate such a rescheduling with regard to other provisions of New Hampshire election law.”

The bill goes on to say, “This advice was also directly contrary to both the political calendar and the election procedure manual, which are required to be prepared cooperatively by the secretary of state and the attorney general and distributed to local election officials,” and adds: “This act is not intended to absolve any legal counsel of liability for the advice given.”

“Of particular concern to the general court was the lack of notification for rescheduled elections and the irregular process of absentee voting and recounts. These municipalities must now choose to accept the ramifications of the decision to reschedule their elections or to seek ratification of that decision. Either option will likely result in the disenfranchisement of voters. … This act seeks to implement ratification as the least detrimental of 2 unfortunate options, but not to establish precedent or to authorize these actions in future elections,” it adds.

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