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Bid to allow towns to postpone town meetings frozen by New Hampshire House 

  • Jaffrey held Town Meeting via drive-through this year. Staff photo by Ashley Saari

Monitor staff
Published: 1/7/2021 3:19:52 PM

An effort to allow towns to postpone their town meetings this spring during the pandemic was put on hold Wednesday, after the New Hampshire House declined to fast-track a bipartisan Senate bill to allow that approach.

Despite a long day of partisan bickering over changes to House rules and an election for House Speaker Wednesday, the House did not take up the bill that would have enabled the postponements: Senate Bill 2.

“Well, the House is a lot of times a very independent organization,” quipped Sen. James Gray, the bill’s sponsor. That bill had passed the Senate earlier Wednesday 24-0, and was intended to be expedited to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk so towns could begin postponing their meetings this month.

But in the House, representatives declined to bring up the bill out of a desire to hold hearings first, according to Gray, a Rochester Republican who chairs the Senate Election Law committee.

“The major objection that I heard did not have to do with any content of the bill at all,” said Gray. “It had to do with giving the people the chance, in a public hearing setting, to express their opinions.”

That bill, sponsored by Republican senators, was hoped to be fast-tracked on Wednesday, when both the House and the Senate convened. Doing so was important because some towns have deliberative session deadlines coming up in late January and February and need to start planning postponing sessions now, sponsors said.

Typically, town meetings are held in March.

The bill also included language that would have temporarily revived a set of pandemic-era changes to absentee voting law in New Hampshire.

In 2020, lawmakers allowed towns to partially process absentee ballots days ahead of Election Day, cutting down on the amount of work pollworkers would have to do on Election Day, at a year when record numbers were voting absentee. That power expired Jan. 1; Senate Bill 2 would extend it again to Aug. 1, allowing towns to do so again for town meeting votes. 

But in order to send the bill to Sununu’s desk, the House would have had to suspend the rules to allow a bill to be brought in to be voted on. No such motion was brought.

Now, the timing of the bill is unclear, with little information on when the House is meeting next. Wednesday’s session was held “drive-in style” in a parking lot at the University of New Hampshire; it is unknown when or how the next will be held.

The postponement of the postponement bill prompted frustration from one voting rights group: the New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights, which called it a failure “dangerous and short-sighted.”

“Without this bill, towns are left to fend for themselves as they plan for upcoming town meeting elections,” the group said in a statement. “This delay in passing SB2 means that towns will have to make plans without knowing fully what to expect in an already uncertain environment due to the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 statewide. Towns may be forced to hold ‘normal’ town meetings, which could include citizens packed into small rooms if they want to have a voice on what happens in their town.”

The organization called on the House to pass the bill quickly.

Originally, Senate Bill 2 was intended to head to Sununu’s this week. With the addition of hearings, the more realistic passage timeline is now mid-February, Gray said.

That means that “SB 2 towns” – those who hold their discussion sessions ahead of their voting sessions and vote via ballot for town warrant articles – will need to make decisions quickly.

Gray said that there are still options for towns, even if SB 2 never passes. A bill passed last year, House Bill 1129, already allows towns to hold their town meetings remotely, over Zoom. And he said if towns wanted to, they could attempt to use the “72-hour” rule to continually postpone their meetings every three days until they get to a date they want.

But many towns were hoping to still hold outdoor, socially distanced meetings, to allow residents to interact in person and voice their views organically. Postponing the meetings a few months into late spring would mean those outdoor meetings could be held in warmer weather.

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