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State Native American Commission unable to vote due to lack of members

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Dan Tuohy / NHPR
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The state Commission on Native American Affairs hasn't had enough members to officially vote for more than five months, in part because the group hasn’t had a new public member appointed by Gov. Chris Sununu in two years.

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The Commission lost four members whose terms ended this year and who chose not to reapply. The body now has six people, and it needs nine to reach a quorum — the minimum number of people needed to vote. That means the body can’t make decisions, such as accepting draft language of legislation and sending letters to express the views of the Commission.

Under law, the Commission is able to meet, but not vote on anything. The body’s last official meeting took place in June.

“During the course of a regular meeting, we’re making decisions and having to vote on things. Since we can’t vote without a quorum, we might as well just send emails back and forth,” Commission Chair Anne Jennison said.

Because the Commission hasn’t been able to take official action on any matters since June, it has been “having to deal with some of the issues as private citizens that the Commission would have more clout doing,” Jennison said.

Those issues include weighing in on a range of legislation, such as a bill that would ban Native mascots in public schools, and another that would change the makeup of the Commission itself. Jennison added that she wished the Commission would have been able to write a letter to the Governor about changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day this year.

“It would have provided much more weight if the Commission had been able to act on these pieces of legislation,” Jennison said.

The Commission is currently waiting on four applications to be approved by the governor.

While the Commission typically votes to formally approve member applications as part of the nomination process, it doesn’t have the quorum to do so. Instead, the body’s nomination subcommittee has been vetting applications and sending them on without that formal feedback from the Commission as a whole.

Jennison said the subcommittee passed along two applications in June, another in July and one more in late October.

From there, responsibility to field and send applications to the Governor’s Office ultimately lands on the Director of the Division of Historical Resources at the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Historical Resources Director Ben Wilson said he sent some applications to the Governor earlier this year, but due to a mailing issue, he had to re-send them this month. Wilson said he could not recall when he originally sent the applications.

The governor's spokesperson Benjamin Vihstadt said his office has not heard from any member of the commission concerning the issue, adding that he is anticipating the four applications Wilson sent in mid-November shortly.

“While we do not receive any applications directly, we anticipate DNCR sending along new appointments to the Commission for the Governor’s consideration,” Vihstadt said in an email.

“We’re hamstrung,” Jennison said. “We have some applications in the pipeline, and I’ve been frustrated because nothing seems to be happening with them.”

Commission member and former chair Kathleen Blake said part of the issue is that there aren’t many people who volunteer in the first place.

“People work. It’s hard to have people get out of their jobs to come and serve on a Commission,” Blake said. “It’s difficult to get a significant number of volunteers that are both appropriate and are willing to actually buckle down and do the work. It’s been a challenge recently, and it is frustrating obviously because we can’t do our work.”

The last public member appointed by the Governor was Jennison in late 2019. She said her appointment took five or six months.

“It’s not a snappy fast process,” Jennison said. “I guess we’re not a priority to anyone.”

Of the nearly 150 active statutory commissions and committees documented on the state website, the Native American Commission is the only one that does not have enough members to reach a quorum.

The Commission on Native American Affairs

Created by the legislature in 2010, the Commission “promotes and strengthens Native American heritage and furthers the needs of New Hampshire’s Native American community through state policy and program,” according to its website.

“We are supposed to represent the interests of the Native American citizens of New Hampshire,” Blake said. “We work with issues surrounding preservation and protection of indigenous remains, indigenous gravesites, indigenous cultural artifacts. We work with social services as needed. We work with education, in trying to have the history of our people be represented accurately.”

Blake’s term is set to end Nov. 22, which will leave the Commission with just five people if no one else is added.

The Commission has a capacity of 15 people total. Four members have to come from the following sectors: the State Council on the Arts, the Division of Travel and Tourism Development, the Native American Program at Dartmouth College and an archeologist appointed by the director of the Division of Historical Resources.

The remaining 11 members are appointed by the governor from the public at large, who are representatives from the Native American community.

Blake said while the law was written to have up to 15 members on the Commission, the body has never reached that maximum for the six years that she has been serving.

To avoid the issue in the future, some Commission members said they are considering attempting to change the law and redefine the voting quorum to a majority of members, rather than nine members. To do that, they need a voting quorum.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.