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O'Brien fights to lock out the public

Last modified: 8/14/2011 12:00:00 AM
Months after locking the House gallery during debate over the state budget, Speaker William O'Brien is still fighting for the ability to block citizens from watching the Legislature in person.

On March 31, O'Brien closed off the Legislature to public visitors following heckling from the balcony that overlooks the House floor as the Republican majority sought to approve a budget that limited collective bargaining rights for unions and made deep cuts to state programs.

But Maggie Hassan, the former Senate majority leader who was in attendance that day, thought O'Brien was acting unconstitutionally. She filed a lawsuit along with Bette Lasky, another former Democratic state senator, arguing that O'Brien had violated Part II, Article 8 of the state Constitution.

'The doors of the galleries, of each house of the legislature, shall be kept open to all persons who behave decently, except when the welfare of the state, in the opinion of either branch, shall require secrecy,' the article reads. Hassan said those not behaving decently can and have been told to leave in the past, but O'Brien's response to lock the public out of the proceedings entirely was unconstitutional.

But O'Brien, through Manchester attorney Ed Mosca, is arguing that he has the authority to lock the public out of legislative sessions whenever he chooses.

Mosca notes that Part II, Article 8 was written in 1792. The State House wasn't built until 1819.

'Thus, the voters who passed Part II, Article 8 could not have understood it to specifically refer to the portions of the present Statehouse which we call the House gallery and the Senate gallery,' Mosca wrote.

He then cites a dictionary definition of the term 'gallery' at the time to show that, in 1792, it would not have necessarily referred to something like the House's balcony. The definition reads: 'A kind of walk along the floor of a house, into which the doors of the apartments open; the upper seats in a church; the seats in a playhouse above the pit.'

Mosca, who could not be reached for comment, also calls up barely legible notes from William Plumer - who would go on to serve as gover

nor and U.S. senator - during the state's constitutional con-

vention that says the doors of the houses of the Legislature should be kept open so 'the citizens of the state may be more fully informed.'

'The purpose of Part II, Article 8, as described by Plumer, was to allow an informed citizenry by requiring the Legislature to conduct open sessions, not to require the Legislature to maintain balcony-type structures for its proceedings,' Mosca writes.

With that in mind, despite closing off the balcony, the openness of the House was maintained by the proceedings being broadcast within the State House as well as 'live-streamed' online and the press being present on the floor, he argues. The Constitution 'does not prevent the Legislature from turning the legislative galleries into office space, a cafeteria, a WiFi lounge, or whatever it deems appropriate,' Mosca writes.

'So obviously the House can close its gallery whenever it deems appropriate and for as long as it deems appropriate,' the letter says.

Hassan has yet to file a response to O'Brien's July 25 filing in Merrimack County Superior Court but said Friday 'the tone of (O'Brien's) response and the argument was very disappointing.'

'It doesn't appear to me that he is taking the issue very seriously, and that's too bad,' Hassan said. 'This is somebody who ran a campaign about freedom and about the New Hampshire Constitution, and it seems to me that he isn't practicing what he preaches.'

Hassan, who is considering a gubernatorial run in 2012 if Democratic Gov. John Lynch doesn't seek a fifth term, said witnessing the House proceedings in person allows a member of the public to see how their representative acts on the floor - whether, for example, the representative appears to be making up his or her own mind or following directions from party leaders.

'New Hampshire's hallmark, the state government, is its openness, its transparency and the degree which it involves citizens in day-to-day decision-making at every level of government,' Hassan said. 'The fact that any resident can go to the State House, walk into the gallery and observe what's going on . . . has been critical to the way we have functioned for over 200 years.'

Parole board shakeup

Greg Crompton has a pretty good hunch about why he was not reappointed to the state parole board: He spoke out against Senate Bill 500.

At last week's Executive Council meeting, Lynch proposed replacing Crompton and Alan Coburn with Richard Flynn, the former safety commissioner; and Donna Sytek, a former speaker of the House and past chairwoman of the state GOP.

Last year, the Lynch-signed law became a favorite target for his election challenger John Stephen because it mandated that sexual and violent offenders be released into the community nine months prior to the end of their maximum sentence. It also said that if the offenders violated their parole, they could be re-incarcerated only for a maximum of 90 days.

Crompton, a former deputy warden in the Concord prison, and Coburn, the former director of a Manchester halfway house for substance abusers, didn't feel the law gave the board enough leeway and voiced their displeasure. A revision was signed by Lynch earlier this year after passage by the Republican Legislature.

'As a result of my speaking out and being an appointee of the governor, it created hurdles for him in his bid for re-election as governor. We know that as a fact,' Crompton said.

He said he was told before Lynch appointed Flynn and Sytek that 'the parole board is going in a new direction and that you'll not be reappointed.'

Lynch's move led John Eckert, the parole board's executive assistant, to take to the comments section of the New Hampshire Union Leader website.

'With all due respect to Mr. Manning, Ms. Sytek and Mr. Flynn are not nearly as qualified as Mr. Crompton and Mr. Coburn,' Eckert wrote, referring to the governor's spokesman, Colin Manning. 'Together these two men have over 50 years of experience dealing with offenders and substance abusers. Authoring truth-in-sentencing and running the department of safety are not nearly as relevant,' a reference to Flynn and Sytek's qualifications.

Eckert said over the phone that Crompton's in-depth understanding of the corrections system and Coburn's grasp of substance abuse issues, which lie at the heart of most criminal cases, is 'a big loss for the board to sustain.'

'My position is that's just a lot of expertise to lose,' Eckert said. 'I've known both of them for a long time, and I respect both of them tremendously.'

Manning defended the move, saying the governor has 'always worked to appoint the most qualified people to positions in state government.'

'In Dick Flynn and Donna Sytek, you have two people who have vast experience with criminal justice,' he said. 'I don't think anyone can credibly argue with the credentials (they) bring to the parole board.'

But Eckert said he isn't aware of a 'new direction' being taken by the board as Crompton says he was told.

'I don't know what that direction is,' Eckert said. 'A new direction - you hear that a lot, but what does it mean? I don't know what it means.'

Daughters at the Draft

Jon Huntsman returned to the state Friday for a weekend swing, coming off Thursday night's debate in Ames, Iowa.

Three of his daughters - Mary Anne, Liddy and Abby - beat him here, and hosted a debate-watching party at the Draft in downtown Concord. More than 50 supporters and campaign staffers turned out, chowing down on pizza and buffalo wings.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mary Anne, the eldest at 26, thought her dad did well. 'I thought it was great,' she said after the debate. 'I think my dad did an excellent job. . . . I wish that he had a little more time, but I think his answers were well thought-out.'

Still, Mary Anne said she wasn't surprised he got only seven questions during the debate. 'Right now, he's not a front-runner,' she said.

St. Hilaire challenger?

Voters frustrated with Republican Executive Councilor Dan St. Hilaire's recent vote against a Planned Parenthood contract are hoping to find a Democratic challenger to run against him next fall. Among those considering it: Colin Van Ostern.

Van Ostern is a business manager at Stonyfield Farm. He has an MBA and previously worked as associate director of public relations at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. Capital Beat readers will likely be most familiar with Van Ostern's role in the 2010 election: campaign manager for congressional candidate Ann McLane Kuster.

'I've heard from many friends and neighbors who are concerned that the Executive Council's hard-right policies are hurting our community - and yes, some local leaders have encouraged me to run in order to bring some balance back to Concord,' Van Ostern said in an email. 'I agree that we need a check on the current agenda, so I'm taking this encouragement seriously and giving it real thought.'

Priority parking

House Republican leaders were up in arms last week over parking privileges at a Nashua liquor store.

At a recently opened Liquor and Wine Outlet in Nashua, the state Liquor Commission assigned the parking spaces closest to the entrance to drivers of hybrid and energy-efficient vehicles, not handicapped drivers. After concerns about fairness were raised, the commission said it will work with the Governor's Commission on Disabilities to review the parking plan, which was one of several nods to energy efficiency incorporated into the new store in order to receive a federal Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.

The commission's plan sparked incredulity in initial statements by O'Brien and House Majority Whip Peter Silva of Nashua. When the review was announced, O'Brien called it 'a good first step to remedy the Liquor Commission's decision' but said he would prefer an immediate change in parking policy.

'We still want an answer as to why the commission supports the idea of assigning parking on the basis of what kind of car one drives, and I hope to hear their response soon,' O'Brien said. 'We also would like an analysis of the procedures the Liquor Commission used that led to this situation happening.'

Silva wasn't quite as measured in his response.

'A simple review of the parking situation is absolutely unacceptable,' Silva said in a statement. 'Until the Liquor Commission reverses their outrageous decision to make disabled individuals, including wounded veterans, walk by spots reserved for people who own the upscale cars of the moment, the residents of Nashua will not be satisfied.'

1st District deliveryman

What can Frank do for you?

Manchester residents may get their mail handed to them by freshman U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta, the city's former mayor, tomorrow when Guinta spends some time on a UPS delivery route after honoring two longtime delivery drivers.

The Republican congressman is set to visit the Manchester UPS Store, 816 Elm St., at 9:15 a.m., spokesman J. Mark Powell said. He will spend about 45 minutes on the delivery route before being dropped off at his district office on Lowell Street.

Romney signs pledge

Mitt Romney became the first GOP candidate for president to sign Tom Thomson's anti-tax pledge last week.

Thomson, son of former governor Mel Thomson, introduced the six-point pledge Friday, in which candidates promise to work tirelessly if elected president to cut taxes, fees and regulations, cut spending and reduce the national debt, cut the size of government at all levels, secure our borders by using whatever means are necessary, become energy independent within eight years and faithfully and forcefully uphold the U.S. Constitution.

Paul's Concord HQ

Ron Paul is setting up shop in Concord.

In the wake of yesterday's Ames Straw Poll in Iowa, Paul is returning to the Granite State to open his campaign headquarters here.

Paul will hold a grand opening at the new location, 128D Hall St., between 6 and 8 p.m. Wednesday. On Thursday, he will speak to the New Hampshire House Business Coalition and the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce from 8 to 9:30 a.m. at the Kimball Jenkins Estate, 266 N. Main St., before holding a 12:30 pm. question-and-answer session with real estate brokers at Concord Gateway, 25 Hall St.

Bachmann cancels

Michele Bachmann canceled a trip to New Hampshire she had planned to take today and is instead ready to hit the ground in South Carolina.

Bachmann had been scheduled to speak at the town hall in Windham today and meet with two Republican groups in Deering tomorrow. Instead, she's starting a six-event jaunt through South Carolina, another early primary state.

New job

Anthony Blenkinsop has been appointed to head the charitable trusts unit in the state attorney general's office.

Blenkinsop joined the civil law bureau in the attorney general's office in 2004. He replaces Anne Edwards, who has been promoted to serve as the Department of Justice's chief of staff.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com. Karen Langley can be reached at 369-3316 or klangley@cmonitor.com. Ben Leubsdorf contributed to this column.)


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