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Policing offensive behavior by N.H. lawmakers a challenge, State House leaders say

Policing poor behavior by New Hampshire lawmakers – on social media and in real life – is a growing problem that the Legislature is poorly equipped to handle. That was the shared takeaway of a meeting of top lawmakers and State House staff this week convened by the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee, which reported a growing number of complaints from members of the public who have had rude encounters with lawmakers.

“We need to do something, because enough is enough,” said Democratic Rep. Janet Wall of Madbury. “We are being inundated” by complaints.

Wall and other committee members noted one problem is that the ethics committee was designed to police ethical violations by lawmakers – things like conflicts of interest and dishonestly.

But basic civility and manners are another matter. Conduct guidelines do ask lawmakers to treat the public with “dignity and respect,” but the ethics committee hasn’t ever seen enforcing those as its charge.

“It’s very unsatisfying for the person who has complained, who says, ‘They didn’t treat me with dignity and respect,’ and then the committee tells them we dismissed it,” said Donna Sytek, a former speaker of the New Hampshire House who now sits on the ethics committee as a public member.

New Hampshire’s citizen legislature has seen its share of bad behavior over the years, including lawmakers who are abusive to each other or members of the public. But by all accounts, it’s increased in the digital age.

It’s been less an issue in the state Senate, where collegial relations – between members and with the public – is more the norm. The Senate has also adopted specific guidelines to limit opportunities for abuse. For instance, cell phone use in the chamber is limited by rules.

But internet-exacerbated incidents in the House have become increasingly common and involved lawmakers in both parties. Some incidents have been investigated by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office as civil rights violations; multiple lawmakers have faced resignation calls over online behavior.

At least two House members have quit the Legislature over online conduct in the past decade.

“This whole social media thing is developing all the problems that we have now,” House Speaker Sherman Packard told the committee Monday.

Packard stressed that the conduct in question – online and in real life – is confined to a fraction of the House’s 400 members.

“It still comes down to a small group on both sides that don’t care about whatever we tell them, whatever we ask them. They just do whatever they darn well please,” Packard said.

Packard told the committee that his Speaker’s Advisory Committee, a bipartisan panel of senior lawmakers first formed under former Democratic Speaker Steve Shurtleff, has worked to address behavior issues in the House, and acted unanimously to issue what Packard described as “letters of warning” to members who have behaved poorly.

But the precise scope of the problem remains unclear.

After the meeting, Packard declined to say how many letters the committee has issued, or the number of complaints it’s received.

But he did indicate the problem may soon outstrip the Advisory Committee’s bandwidth.

“We can expand it a little bit, but I’m not sure we can expand it to the point where they are meeting five days a week,” Packard said.

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