County Republicans Reverse Course On Remote Meeting After Local Newspaper Asks AG to Intervene
Story updated: Tuesday, Dec. 8, 5:15 p.m.
The Belknap County Legislative Delegation is reversing course and will provide a public audio stream of Tuesday evening’s scheduled meeting. The move comes hours after the Laconia Daily Sun requested the New Hampshire Attorney General intervene, citing the risk of COVID-19 as the delegation will gather in a room in the county complex that won’t meet social-distancing requirements.
“Our reporters have expressed serious concerns about attending such a meeting in person, with one calling it ‘a possible super-spreader event,’” Daily Sun managing editor Roger Carroll wrote to the AG’s office.
Carroll said the lack of a remote viewing option meant those in attendance would be forced to “risk being exposed to a virus during a pandemic, or stay home at the further expense of not being able to see their elected officials carrying out their official duties.”
The Attorney General is declining to comment publicly on the matter.
While the county delegation has agreed to carry an audio livestream, it is still not offering a way for members of the public to issue remote comments on the proposed budget, which is on Tuesday's agenda. The Daily Sun is reporting that the local public access television channel also won't carry the meeting, due to the risk of exposure to the station's staff.
The newspaper says the original decision to not offer remote participation in the meeting was made by Rep. Michael Sylvia, a Republican from Belmont who was part of a small group of lawmakers who sought to impeach Gov. Chris Sununu, a fellow Republican, over his executive order requiring people to wear masks when they can’t socially distance.
Sylvia didn’t return a request for comment.
He told the Daily Sun last week that he had no intention of changing the meeting’s format, and that anyone who attended the meeting was welcome to wear a mask, though he wouldn’t be wearing one.
“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 told the paper.
Sylvia’s insistence on an in-person meeting with no remote access stands in direct opposition to a legal opinion from the Belknap County Attorney, according to the Daily Sun.
“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,” Paul T. Fitzgerald wrote.
In a statement, Sununu called the in-person meeting with limited space “incredibly irresponsible and flies in the face of open government while putting public health at risk.”
Along with a presentation on the recommended county budget, the delegation is also slated to elect officers.
The meeting is scheduled to begin at 6pm tonight inside Conference Room #1 in the county complex in Laconia.
(Editor’s note: this story has been updated)