Laconia Charter amendment aimed at eliminating unnecessary primary elections

LACONIA — In addition to voting for state and national lawmakers, city voters on Tuesday will also cast ballots on proposed amendments to the City Charter that would change the procedure of municipal primary elections.
Altogether voters will be asked to vote "yes" or "no" on seven questions. Of these, five would bring the charter into compliance with the recent changes in state law and two — questions four and six —would make significant changes to the conduct of primary elections.
The fourth question includes several changes. First, primary elections would be held only for the offices of mayor and city councilor and the primary elections for the School Board and Police Commission would be eliminated.

Second, the 10-day filing period for candidates for mayor or city councilor would be moved from June to August. Third, if fewer than three candidates file for any office, their names will be placed on the general election ballot and no primary election will be held for that office.
In other words, only if three or more candidates file for a particular office — either mayor or city councilor — will a primary election be held. Should three or more candidates file for mayor, a primary election for mayor will be held in all six wards. But, should no more than two candidates file for mayor, primary elections would be held only in those wards where more than two candidates filed for city councilor.
The primary ballot will include space to cast a write-in votes for someone whose name is not on the ballot but those ballots will only be available for races were there are already two or more candidates. That is to say, if there is a primary election for mayor, write-in votes could be cast in all six wards for that race, but write-in votes for city councilor could only be cast in those wards where primary elections for that office are held.
The sixth question would require a write-in candidate to receive at least 35 votes in a primary election to qualify as one of the two candidates earning a spot on the general election ballot.
The remaining five questions on the ballot ensure that the City Charter complies with state law. The first would specify the dates and times when the Supervisors of Checklist are in session. The second would authorize the City Council to set the hours when the polls are open on election day. The third would declare that all municipal elections are nonpartisan and specify that no ballot shall designate a partisan affiliation for any candidate. The fourth would provide that the order candidate's names are printed on the ballot conforms to state law. The last would clarify the procedures for requesting and conducting a recount.

The City Council recommended these changes to spare the costs associated with holding primary elections when and where there were few contested races and voter turnout was sparse. The proposal was discussed at several meetings of the council and at a meeting of its Government Operations & Ordiances subcommittee. The proposed amendment has been the subject of two public hearings.
Laconia is one of three of the state's 13 cities to conduct municipal primary elections. In both the other two — Manchester and Keene —the charters authorize the city clerk to deem a primary election election unnecessary if no more than two candidates file for any particular office.
Primary elections were introduced in 1995 in place of partisan elections, in which party caucuses nominated the candidates for mayor and city councilor. Since the change was introduced, relatively few primary elections have been contested, and very few voters have cast ballots. For example, in 1997, when the first primary was held, only one candidate entered the primary for city council in each of the six wards and only two candidates entered the mayoral primary. With no contested races, just 7 percent of registered voters went to the polls.
In the eight primary elections between 1997 and 2011 voter turnout has averaged 9 percent. In three of the past eight elections — in 2003, 2009 and 2011 — primary elections were held even though there were not more than two candidates for either mayor or any of the six council seats. In 2011, only 259 of 8,422, or 3 percent of registered voters went to the polls, just 21 of them in Ward 2 and another 22 in Ward 5, at a cost to the city of approximately $39 a vote. Last year when there were three candidates for mayor but no more than two for any of six city council seats the turnout was 6 percent.
City Clerk Mary Reynolds estimates that the cost of conducting municipal primary elections is approximately $8,600, which does not include about $1,000 for police details at the polling stations at Woodland Heights Elementary School and Laconia Middle School. The cost consists of $3,900 for printing ballots, $1,000 for materials at polling stations and $3,700 in wages of poll workers.

County employees said to be under a lot of stress

LACONIA — Belknap County Administrator Debra Shackett told Belknap County Commissioners when they met last evening at the Belknap County Complex that the environment in which county workers are doing their jobs ''is highly stressful, each and every day. We're juggling to keep from overspending line items in every single department. It's like working in a war zone. Waiting four weeks for transfers just adds to the stress.''
She said that some departments are putting off purchases of such items used daily like saran wrap and rubber gloves in order to comply with an injunction obtained by the Belknap County Convention in Belknap County Superior Court in late August which limits the ability of the commission to transfer more than $300 between line items in the budget which the convention approved in March without the approval of the convention's Executive Committee.
Shackett said that the process is extremely cumbersome, and, while the committee did grant approval for the transfer of $34,000 to cover the county's share of employee health insurance benefits through mid-November when it met Monday, it still pushed the issue of other transfer requests off for another month.
County ommissioners were sympathetic.
''We certainly understand your frustrations,'' said Commission Chairman John Thomas (R-Belmont), while Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) said had personally observed stress on each department head. ''It's an incredibly difficult situation to work in. It's an absurd environment. I can only hope that there's some relief in the future.''
Commissioner Steve Nedeau (R-Meredith) praised Shackett and others saying that she had been a huge positive force for the county. ''Back a few years ago this office was in shambles. You have made this a better place to work.'''
Philpot praised the county workers, saying ''despite all of this we still have people over there doing their job.''
County Commission candidate Dave Pollak (D-Laconia), who showed up at the meeting wearing a soccer official's uniform, said after the meeting that he was ''pulling a red card on the Executive Committee for unsportsmanlike conduct'' for its action on Monday when it put off consideration of other transfer requests from the commission which would have resolved the health insurance issue through the end of the year.
''Why are they playing chicken with the lives of these people? There's no reason for it. They know they have to pay. They were told by the county attorney that the four unions will go to court if they try to pass the county's health insurance costs on to the workers. Now there's a legal opinion they should pay attention to,'' said Pollak.
In other action commissioners heard from the Boys and Girls Cub of the Lakes Region that the two $250,000 Community Development Block Grants that the county helped them obtain had been used to help pay off the purchase price of the former St. James Episcopal Church which is now the permanent home of the club.
Walter Flinn, president of the club's board of directors, said that the grants made it possible for the club to own the building without a mortgage and that the cub's membership has risen from 245 to 325 since the move to the new building and that 80 percent of those taking part in the club's programs are in the low to moderate income bracket.
He said that one of the club's current challenges is attracting enough funding to retain staff for its programs.

In court, 14-year-old faces man who repeatedly raped her over 9 year period

LACONIA — A former Meredith man pleaded guilty in the Belknap County Superior Court yesterday to five counts of rape and will spend at least the next 13 years in the N.H. State Prison.

Mark Thurber, 43, received five consecutive sentences. One for 10 to 20 years — all of which is to be served, one for 4 to 10 years — one year of which will be suspended pending good behavior, and three suspended sentences of 10-to-20 years each. All of the suspended portions of his sentence can be brought forward within 40 years of his release.

Thurber raped one of his female victims from the time she was 5-years-old until she was 14-years-old. The abuse happened at the girl's family's home in Tilton and in each of the homes he lived in in Meredith.

His second victim, now 20, was assaulted when she was seven to eight years old at Thurber's home that he shared with his ex-wife. Dept. Belknap County Attorney Carley Ahern said the girl would sleep between him and his wife and he would assault her while his wife slept.

Both victims and their families were in court yesterday.

Speaking softly through her tears, the victim who was abused the longest told the court she was now 14 and that Thurber would touch her and get on top of her. She said the abuse began when Thurber was living with her family, even when he had a house of his own. She said he threatened to kill her and her family if she told anyone.

She said she kept it to herself for years because she was afraid. She said she began cutting herself and once tried suicide. She said her grandmother suspected something and it was last year that she told he parents what happened to her.

"I wish I could tell my family everything but it's too much for them," she said.

She told the court that she wished she could go back to the days before the abuse started and that she really wanted him to go to jail for life.

"Maybe if it happens to Mark he'd know what it's like to take a childhood away," she said. "I hope he suffers in jail."

After hearing from the girl, Judge James O'Neill asked Ahern why she would recommend 14-to-30 years when the victim just said she wished the sentence was longer.

Ahern said that she had asked the families of both victims who told they wanted "life" but after explaining to them that they would have to testify at a trial they said "okay" to the 14 to 30 years.

"The most important thing was knowing he would go away today," Ahern said.

Thurber's lawyer, John Bresaw, said the court's acceptance of the plea would bring closure and that his client was willing to take responsibility for his actions.

Bresaw said there were some mitigating factors in Thurber's life including that he became a foster child at the age of 6 and lived with 16 different foster families where he was often physically abused.

He said he was not there to make excuses for his client but to get the matter resolved.

Judge O'Neill noted there were letters about Thurber's good qualities that were submitted to the court by some of his friends, many on whom were in court yesterday to support him.

Thurber also agreed to life-long supervision and to register for life as a sex-offender. He is also mandated to take any and all classes and counseling required by the courts now and into the future including after he is released.

Eight additional counts against Thurber were not prosecuted.

Saturday morning gathering planned in reaction to OD deaths

LACONIA — A group of people concerned and saddened by the recent spate of heroin overdoses in the city will be gathering Saturday morning at 9 a.m. at the gazebo in Rotary Park.

The gathering is the idea of Salvation Army volunteer Kathy Sorell, who said anyone in the area who is concerned about drug abuse can get together and talk about their feelings and share some ideas about what they can do to help.

She said she was so saddened when she learned of the two recent apparent heroin overdoses that she put the idea of an informal gathering on her Facebook page and at least 10 of her friends and others who feel the same way have committed to attending.

She said they will be providing coffee and donuts for anyone who attends.

Sorell said she is especially reaching out to the friends and family of the two people who died recently of suspected overdoses and hopes they'll attend Saturday morning so they'll know there are people out there who care about them.

"Even if they just want a hug or to cry, we'll be there," she said.

She said she will bring a list of local resources for those who feel they want some help but don't know who or what agency can help them.

Sorell said that she hopes there is enough community enthusiasm to continue meeting at Rotary Park on Saturday mornings.

"We don't want any negativity," she said. "We just want to reach out and try to so something positive for the city.