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Apr 6, 2017 5:37 PM

Senate approves plan to help towns that delayed last month's elections due to blizzard

NH1.COM

CONCORD – The state Senate overwhelmingly passed a compromise measure that provides a plan to ratify town elections that were postponed on March 14 due to a powerful snowstorm.

The Senate on Thursday voted 21-2 to pass the bipartisan amendment, which will now head to the state House of Representatives for review and then a vote.

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said the compromise “seems to be the best and easiest and most practical way to extricate the towns from the situation in which they’re in.”

And Democratic Sen. Lou D’Alessandro of Manchester said “I think it’s the right thing to do at the right time. Nothing is perfect but we do the best we can with what we got. This is an example of that.”

The day before the town elections, as the storm was closing in, Secretary of State Bill Gardner declared that any election held other than on the second Tuesday in March would be held illegally. And Gov. Chris Sununu said he was "strongly" recommending but not mandating that towns stay open to allow voting. And he emphasized that towns that postponed their elections did so “at their own risk.”

But around 73 of the state’s 210 towns did delay their contests, pointing to a state statute that they suggested gave town moderators the power to move elections due to unsafe weather conditions, such as the powerful nor’easter that slammed into the state.

The postponements were the first time in state’s modern history that a large number of towns decided to delay voting.

A plan put together by state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn days after the storm struck that would have ratified all of the delayed elections was voted down in committee. And a proposal earlier this week by state House of Representatives Speaker Shawn Jasper that would have allowed the towns to hold special elections in May to ratify the results of the postponed contests was voted down by a House committee.

After Jasper’s pitch was defeated, Bradley and Sen. Regina Birdsell of Hampstead, chair of the Senate Election Law Committee, teamed up with Woodburn, state Sen. Donna Soucy of Manchester, and Gardner to forge a new plan. Their proposal gives the legislature the power to ratify the elections of officials, such as selectmen and school board members, in the contests that were delayed by the blizzard like conditions.

The second part of their compromise then gives the governing bodies in the towns that postponed their elections the ability to ratify the results of bonds, budgets, and warrants if they hold public hearings allowing for the public to weigh in.

Not taking these steps could open up the towns to legal actions over the delayed elections.

The compromise amendment contains an interesting preamble, which criticizes lawyers from the New Hampshire Municipal Association for giving the towns poor advice which “placed some municipalities in an untenable position.”

Democratic Sen. Dan Feltes, one of the two opposed to the compromise, said “I cannot vote for it because of the language….which specifically calls out “ the Municipal Association.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate. I think it’s over the top,” the Democrat from Concord added. “This language is wildly problematic and inappropriate.”

While Woodburn took issue with the preamble, he said towns that delayed their elections “thought they were avoiding a storm but what they got was a blizzard of legal issues.”

“We need to act,” the Democrat from the North Country added. And he said the compromise “does accomplish it.”

But Woodburn vowed that next year “I intend to have legislation that firmly puts the power to delay with the towns.”

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