Drive-thrus and loudspeakers: Creative approaches to annual meetings

  • The town garage behind the Center Conway Fire Station is a perfect spot for drive-thru voting. Jamie Gemmiti / The Conway Daily Sun

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 3/31/2020 5:00:57 PM

(Editor’s Note: Covid-19 doesn’t care about town lines. The virus doesn’t care if you live in a city or on a farm. So why not look to each other for solutions? Is there something happening in Nashua that could work in Conway? Did a manufacturer in Salem come up with an idea that could work for another on the Seacoast? The Granite State News Collaborative partners are hoping to find out with a semi-regular series we’re calling: Steal This Solution. The idea will be to highlight something that has worked in one part of the state and then offer a guide for how the public, business leaders and officials anywhere might try it themselves.)

With uncertainty over the weeks and months ahead having become the norm and a situation that changes almost daily, town and school officials are taking things as they come when deciding on a course of action to complete their town and school meetings.

Many municipalities and school districts held their voting and floor meetings on the traditional second Tuesday in March but a number of others that were scheduled later in March or after were forced to postpone the meeting because of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Some have rescheduled the meetings for June, hoping the worst of the pandemic will have passed and large gatherings will no longer be prohibited.

Others are considering some new, unique approaches to obtaining voter approval of their warrants.

In Conway, residents were scheduled to vote by ballot on town and school warrants on April 14. With the Gov. Chris Sununu’s March 26 stay-at-home order for New Hampshire, which is intended to keep the new coronavirus from spreading faster, all-day voting will not take place at the fire station, the usual location.

Faced with that possibility, the Conway Select Board began discussing “drive-thru” voting at a meeting this month.

Select board member Carl Thibodeau said should the board figure out the logistics for drive-thru voting, the town is fortunate to have a location ideally suited for that purpose: the public works garage.

Thibodeau envisions voters driving up to the garage, checking in with the supervisor of the checklist and being handed a ballot. The voter would then exit the garage, which is open on both ends, and proceed to a large parking area to fill out the ballot, before driving back through garage where the ballot would be handed back and placed in the voting machine.

“We would not have a backup because there is plenty of parking,” Thibodeau said, estimating there are about 6,000 registered voters in town. “We can facilitate drive-thru. The only difference from regular town meeting is you would fill out the ballot in your car instead of the voting booth.”

Though Thibodeau said they had not contacted the Secretary of State’s Office yet about the idea, he doesn’t see a problem so long as there is no possibility of fraudulent voting. Conway is supposed to decide on how it will proceed with town meeting on April 1.

Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlon called Conway’s approach a “creative way to deal with it.”

Scanlon said it is difficult to advise towns and school districts with any degree of certainty on how to proceed at this point because of how rapidly everything changes on a daily basis with the virus.

“This situation is fluid and unprecedented,” Scanlon said. “A lot of latitude is being given in making sure they conform to state statutes. This situation though (the governor’s stay-at-home order) throws a new twist on everything.”

Scanlon said the state is trying to balance the need for continued local governance while not violating the state’s right-to-know and public meeting laws. An executive order from Sununu earlier this month does give towns and schools guidelines for conducting meetings and at the same time preserving the public’s right to know.

With gatherings of more than 50 people prohibited, the order waives the normal requirement that a quorum of the public body be present. The meeting need not be audible to the public at the specified location but only if access is provided by telephone, video or other electronic means and the public is provided with information on how to access the meeting.

The order encourages local governments to conduct meetings through electronic means while “preserving the public’s right to notice of such meeting and ability to observe and listen contemporaneously.”

It is unclear how the stay-at-home-order impacts those waivers or further restricts participation in public meetings.

SAU 67, the Bow School District, is considering holding its annual school meeting, which is a floor meeting scheduled for April 10, electronically but to the extent that might be possible is unclear.

School Board Chairman Bryce Larrabee said it is a “complicated” situation and they have discussed a number of things including, at one point, the idea of holding the meeting in a large parking area over a loudspeaker with voters reaching their hands out the window to vote. With the governor’s order last week that idea is now off the table, Larrabee said.

“Now we are trying to figure out if we can do it electronically,” he added. “It is so fresh, we are working through it. At this point, all options are difficult.”

SAU 67 Superintendent Dean S. T. Cascadden said because it is a floor meeting voters need to be able to participate including debating articles and making motions. Further complicating an electronic meeting is the requirement to check in voters.

Cascadden said new guidance might be needed from the governor and Attorney General’s Office on how to have a meeting legally.

Hanover, which has both a ballot for election of officers and a floor meeting, both of which were originally scheduled for May, has rescheduled its meeting for June as did Plainfield, which also has a floor meeting.

Should the public health crisis force another postponement of annual meetings past July 1, the start of the fiscal year for many municipalities and school districts, Scanlon said another executive order from the governor might be necessary so they can continue to operate without budgets.

(These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.)




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