In-person county delegation meeting to go on despite legal advice

  • New Hampshire State Rep. Mike Sylvia, R-Belmont, wears a protective mask during a demonstration against the government mandated lockdown due to concern about COVID-19 at the State House, Saturday, April 18, 2020, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) Michael Dwyer

Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 12/7/2020 1:26:07 PM

The 18-member Belknap County Legislative Delegation will hold a public meeting in a room at the county complex on Tuesday without provision for remote participation despite a contrary legal opinion.

The meeting was set up by Delegation Chairman Mike Sylvia, who was among a small group of Republican House members pursuing a resolution to investigate impeaching Gov. Chris Sununu over actions the governor took in response to the pandemic, including mandating COVID-19 precautions.

Sylvia said he doesn’t intend to wear a face mask at the 6 p.m. Tuesday meeting.

Paul T. Fitzgerald’s legal opinion for the county is that masks are required under an executive order from Sununu and that a remote meeting is needed in order to preserve participation by people not comfortable coming to an in-person session.

The attorney said that during the pandemic many meetings have been held electronically with relative ease and reliability. Some government bodies are meeting this way exclusively.

“To be meaningful, the public’s right to attend and participate in a public hearing should not be diminished by the fear (or reality) that such attendance would expose the participants to an unreasonable risk of physical harm, including illness,” he said.

“In the event that either a member of the Delegation or the public sought relief on the basis that their right to participate was ‘chilled’ because of the planned meeting format, I can easily envision the Court enjoining the gathering unless electronic participation was allowed.”

The legal opinion has not persuaded Sylvia to change the format of the meeting.

“The meeting is set and the notice has been put out,” he said. “The show must go on.”

Sylvia said technical issues make remote meetings awkward at best.

“The governor says that masks work and I’ll take his word for it and if the public wants to attend and wear masks, they are free to,” Sylvia said.

On the other hand, Sylvia said he doesn’t believe in wearing face masks.

He and other members of the group seeking the impeachment probe of Sununu announced their effort after the governor proclaimed a statewide mask mandate, something most other states were already doing.

“I’ve read plenty of scientific reports, as opposed to reading The Laconia Daily Sun, and the science on the issue says that masks are not effective,” Sylvia said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets and that masks are a simple barrier from these droplets reaching others and are effective at protecting those around you as well as affording some protection for yourself.

“You should wear a mask, even if you do not feel sick. This is because several studies have found that people with COVID-19 who never develop symptoms (asymptomatic) and those who are not yet showing symptoms (pre-symptomatic) can still spread the virus to other people,” the CDC says on its website. “The main function of wearing a mask is to protect those around you, in case you are infected but not showing symptoms.”

“It is especially important to wear a mask when you are unable to stay at least 6 feet apart from others since COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).”

County Administrator Debra Shackett said signs will be posted telling people to wear masks and attempts will be made to allow for social distancing.

Delegation members typically sit next to one another around a big horseshoe-shaped table. Rows of seats are set out for the public. The room is down a hallway from the Belknap County Nursing Home.

Shackett said she sought the legal opinion after being contacted by people who said they were not comfortable coming into the room and wondered if there was a Zoom link. The delegation will begin its consideration of the county budget in the meeting.

County Commission Chairman Dave DeVoy said he will attend part of the meeting. He said people will be told to wear masks, and masks will be available, but it will not be possible to force people to use them.

Commissioner Hunter Taylor will not attend.

“Largely on the advice of my doctor, I’m not attending any meetings in person, particularly in light of the fact that there are a number of people in the delegation who will be there who are anti-mask and refuse to wear one,” he said.

“You can’t maintain social distance in there.”

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