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How one N.H. community is dealing with concerns around COVID and civic engagement this town meeting season

This 2017 photo shows a view past a bridge over the Souhegan River to downtown Milford, New Hampshire
Carol M. Highsmith's America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive
/
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Town meeting day for Milford and many other communities is March 8.

Peter Basiliere has been Milford’s moderator for the last 14 years. In that role, it’s his job to make sure local elections run smoothly — not an easy task, especially during the last few town meeting seasons.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, he had to figure out how to make sure his neighbors could gather safely for their annual deliberative sessions, where residents can debate major local decisions and big-ticket spending items ahead of town meeting day. He’s also trying to figure out what the future of voting might look like in Milford (and potentially across New Hampshire) as part of an effort to pilot new ballot counting machines.

At the same time, Basiliere says he’s also trying to figure out how to encourage more civic engagement at the local level, especially as important decisions at the community level don't seem to be getting as much attention from the local media or the wider public as in the past.

NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Basiliere about these and other challenges as part of NHPR’s new series, In Our Backyard, which is exploring the state of local democracy in New Hampshire. Click here to find out more about this project and how you can get involved.

Takeaways

  • Basiliere said he had to remove four residents during Milford’s school deliberative session because they refused to follow mask rules for the meeting. This is the first time he can recall an incident like this during recent town meeting seasons. 
  • Fewer people are showing up to participate in Milford’s deliberative sessions, especially for the school side of things. Basiliere says people don’t realize the importance of this part of the town meeting process. A small number of people can make huge changes to warrant articles that would have an effect on thousands of people living in Milford, he says.
  • Local media coverage of town meeting issues has dwindled across New Hampshire over the years. Basiliere says voters are less likely to be informed of town issues.
  • Basiliere says the state needs to work with small towns to help upgrade voting machines before the 2024 election cycle. Milford’s voting machines work well, he says, but are no longer in production and run on older software, making them difficult to repair.

Transcript

Note: In some communities, including Milford, voters gather to debate local issues before heading to the polls to cast a ballot on those issues in March. Milford’s deliberative sessions took place in early February. Town meeting day for Milford and many other communities is March 8.

Rick Ganley: First, Peter, how have you had to organize or think about Milford's deliberative sessions differently in the last few years with the pandemic? 

Peter Basiliere: Well, the last few years we've had to lay out the town hall auditorium for the town meeting and in the high school cafeteria, for the school meeting, differently because we had to enable people to vote while wearing masks, or if they chose not to or could not wear a mask, a space for those folks as well. So we've had to have two different areas to enable people to participate in the deliberative sessions.

Rick Ganley: How did this year's deliberative sessions compare to previous years?

Peter Basiliere: At the school meeting, there were four people who came and did not want to sit in the area where masks were optional. And I believe they were some of the same people who have been at school board meetings and were voicing their opinions [that] masks should not be required in the schools. During my introductory comments, I had to step down from the podium three times to address them and ask them to either wear a mask in that section or move to the section where masks were optional. Three times, they would not move. And so I asked at that point for the police officers who were present to remove them from the meeting.

Rick Ganley: Do you find that there's more of that happening, though, where people are coming to make a statement about something like that?

Peter Basiliere: We did have an incident this year, but when we ran the elections in 2020 and in 2021, we had no real issues.

Click here to learn more about the steps that communities across New Hampshire took to adjust their approach to town meeting during earlier phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rick Ganley: I want to ask you about attendance at meetings. Are you noticing a drop off in recent years?

Peter Basiliere: There has been a drop off mainly at the school [meeting]. This year, with over 10,000 voters who are registered in town, we had 39 people show up for the school meeting, and they were acting on a $45 million budget. People don't realize how important it is for them to participate in the deliberative session, as well as going to the polls in March to vote.

Rick Ganley: Just a handful of people can have a big effect.

Peter Basiliere: You're absolutely correct, Rick. It can be huge. And if we have 39 people, all you need is, you know, 20 or 25 people who are like-minded to attend the meeting for a couple of hours and make significant changes in the warrant articles.

Rick Ganley: What are some of the ways you think the town could boost that civic engagement and get people more involved?

Peter Basiliere: Well, we're doing the classical attempts [like sharing information on the town website, flyers around town and social media]. There isn't much coverage by the local newspaper any longer. So we've lost that opportunity, unfortunately.

Rick Ganley: Yeah. Your point about local media coverage, I think, is interesting. I think, as local newspapers dwindle or go away, local coverage of town meetings and issues across the state has been dwindling over the years. Do you think that's had a huge impact on the information that folks are getting about what's actually happening?

Peter Basiliere: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. When I first moved into town back in the 80s, The Cabinet, the local paper, would have details about the warrant articles in great detail and with commentary by the budget committee, the board members, editorials, all of that. Now it's not as readily available, and as a result, people are not as well informed as they might like to be.

Rick Ganley: Voters are heading to the polls for Milford's local elections on March 8. Your town was hoping to pilot new vote counting machines. Where does that effort stand?

Peter Basiliere: Well, we went through quite a bit of effort to make that happen, worked with the Secretary of State and the Attorney General's Office, as well as the Ballot Law Commission, and in the end, were unable to test the machines as we had hoped. It's a great disappointment because the AccuVote machines do the job well, but they're not manufactured any longer. And so we have an issue of making sure parts are available. The operating system that is used to run the software that programs the ballots is based on Microsoft Windows XP, which is no longer supported by Microsoft. And so the idea of trying to come up with an alternative to the AccuVote is very critical. We need to find a solution because we have four major elections in 2024, and we don't want to have a debacle like they had in Iowa. So we need, as a state, to come up with an alternative device.

We want to hear from you: If you live in a community with a town meeting, are you planning to participate? If not, why not? What are the big debates happening in your town that we should know about? Let us know at voices@nhpr.org.

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