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N.H. House Committee To Review Complaints Amid Tense Legislative Session

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Dan Tuohy for NHPR
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Tensions have been high in the New Hampshire House of Representatives this legislative session, between lawmakers of opposing parties and between lawmakers and members of the public.

NHPR's Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Speaker of the House Sherman Packard about how he's handling these tensions among representatives.

Rick Ganley: I know the House has met once indoors in full session this year, in a sports complex in Bedford. Are you confident that the House can continue to do its job, meet its deadlines, given all the challenges posed by the pandemic, still, including the safety risks to members who, quite frankly, are elderly in age in many cases?

Sherman Packard: Well, the fact of the matter is, we've had between the Democratic controlled legislature all the way up until Dec. 2 when we were sworn in, we've had three sessions. Indoors out at UNH, we had the one outdoor session and then we had the session that I put together where we did it in the cars. We've had a day and a half session at the Bedford sports complex, and there hasn't been one reported case of somebody catching COVID in all those meetings.

Rick Ganley: With almost every legislative hearing available via live stream, lawmaker conduct is more visible than before. And lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have been caught using some profanity or making derogatory comments toward minority groups over Zoom. How have you been handling those kinds of comments from your colleagues?

Sherman Packard: Well, the best we can, and I guess that's the best I can tell you. I mean, every single week in the calendar, we send out emails to our our members on both sides of the aisle. And we tried to do the best we can, use every avenue we can to tell them that, you know, you're live. If you're going to make some kind of a derogatory comment or something like that, and it's been done by the both sides of the aisle, not just one, then turn your video off and mute yourself or something. But it's been a real challenge. This kind of stuff never happened when we were meeting in person, and this all happened with these Zoom meetings. And it's discouraging. But for the time being, it's something we have to live with. I mean, we contact them. We let them know that they made a statement and that it was wrong. I'm not sure what else you can do.

Rick Ganley: Remote access to House committee hearings have led to a lot more engagement from members of the public during the pandemic. New Hampshire residents who haven't been able to make it to the State House, maybe in the middle of a workday, for example, are now able to check it out during a break and participate. A House committee has voted against keeping remote access for hearings after the pandemic. Why isn't it a good idea to increase public access to what lawmakers are up to?

Rick Ganley: For 225 years we didn't have remote access to the committees and the Legislature worked fine. There's a lot more out-of-state participation from people on certain subject matter than there ever was, and it's because of Zoom. And what we're looking at is participation from New Hampshire residents. And no final decisions have been made at this point, so I don't know where you're saying that a decision has been made that this is all going to go away. It might. But at this point, no final decision has been made as to how we're going to move forward.

Rick Ganley: Well, I did say a House committee has voted. I didn't say that it was a definitive decision, but I'm struggling to understand why more participation in a representative government isn't a good thing.

Sherman Packard: I didn't say it wasn't a good thing. I just said what we're getting is a lot of participation from out-of-state groups that on certain subject matter, normally you wouldn't get.

Rick Ganley: But more residents as well, too.

Sherman Packard: We're getting a lot more participation from New Hampshire residents. And that's why I said no final decision has been made yet.

Rick Ganley: Well, as residents have been able to participate, lawmakers are having more interactions with public members over some bills that they wouldn't have had otherwise. I know that's led to some tense moments between lawmakers and some constituents. The Speaker Advisory Group is an oversight committee that reviews complaints about House members from residents. I know we've only just reinstated it this year. I'm wondering, why did you reappointed it, and has the group seen many complaints yet this session?

Sherman Packard: I reappointed because of exactly what we were talking about a few minutes ago. I set it up because of all the complaints we are getting from citizens, from statements made to them by certain legislators of both parties, not just one, of both parties. And so if a complaint is sent into the office from a citizen of New Hampshire, we'll take a quick look at it and decide whether it goes to the special committee or not. It was just formally set up last week, and right now they are looking at one complaint.

Rick Ganley: I know, earlier in this year's session, you took the step of removing a Democratic lawmaker from her committee because of a tweet that you deemed offensive. You have declined to take similar action against lawmakers who've used some homophobic language, referring to LGBTQ people as having "deviant sexuality" during a House committee meeting at one point, or shared an anti-Semitic message from a website online. What's the role, as you see it, of the House speaker in punishing or censoring lawmakers on either side? And what's your standard for taking action?

Sherman Packard: Well, the member from Merrimack was taken off her committee for calling a member of the public a "terrorist." Under Speaker Shurtleff, a Republican member called a person a "terrorist" and he was removed from his committee. So I haven't done anything that hasn't been done in the past under Democratic leadership. And she also insinuated that the gentleman, the chief over in Troy, was part of the actual breaking into the Capitol, which he was not.

Rick Ganley: This is the police chief in Troy who attended the Washington, D.C. rally. He did not break into the Capitol.

Sherman Packard: He was at the Washington, D.C. rally, but he was not part of the storming of the Capitol. That's why she was taken off her committee. I'm honestly a little bit sick and tired of being accused -- not by you -- but by people saying, 'oh, well, you unfairly treated the member from Merrimack.' When I have done nothing more than what the former speaker and what former speakers have done. The minority leader asked me if I would sit down and talk and have a conversation with the member from Merrimack, and she refused. And if she hadn't done that, she would have still been on her committee.

Rick Ganley: But to my specific question about another member referring to the LGBTQ community having "deviant sexuality." When you hear that, what are your thoughts?

Sherman Packard: When you hear that we go to the committee, we go to the member, we tell him he's wrong and we ask him to apologize. And if you look at the apology that that member gave, I think if that's not acceptable to people, then I'm not sure what is. You know, he was sincerely upset at himself for saying that. And I think his apology pretty much clearly stated that.

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