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Laconia to consider doing away with primary elections

LACONIA — The Government Operations and Ordinances Committee of the City Council last night agreed to direct the City Attorney to draft changes to the City Charter that would either eliminate primary elections altogether or authorize the City Clerk to declare a primary election unnecessary if no more than two candidates file for any particular office.

City Clerk Mary Reynolds initiated the proposal in response to the cost of conducting primary elections, at which very few voters cast ballots.

Once the proposed amendments to the charter are drafted, the committee will present a recommendation to the City Council, which will decide whether to begin the process of amending the charter, which includes a holding public hearing on the proposed changes and placing the question on the general election ballot in November.

The Government Operations and Ordinances Committee is chaired by Councilor Ava Doyle (Ward 1) and includes Councilors David Bownes (Ward 2) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6). None of the committee members expressed a position either for or against eliminating or changing the primary election process.

In 1995 voters amended the City Charter to eliminate partisan elections, in which party caucuses nominated the candidates for mayor and City Council, and instead hold primary elections to choose the two candidates who appeared on the general election ballot. Primaries for city offices are held in September of odd-numbered years.

In a memorandum, Reynolds explained that 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 2001, when turnout reached a high of 18 percent there were four candidates for mayor, along with five city council candidates in Ward 3, three in Wards 4 and 5 and two in Ward 6. 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.

Along with the mayor and city councilors, primary elections are also held to nominate candidates for the the seven seats on the School Board, whose members serve staggered terms, requiring a primary every year, and three seats on the Police Commission.

Reynolds said that 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.

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.

To spare taxpayers the cost of elections that more often than not are unnecessary, Reynolds proposed either adopting the procedure followed by Manchester and Keene or abandoning primary elections entirely.

When the committee met Bownes said he had received a phone call from former mayor and councilor Matt Lahey, who he described as "very much opposed" to eliminating or changing the primary process. Lahey, he explained, considers "the costs of holding the primary minimal compared to the possible consequences of doing away with them."

According to Bownes, Lahey harkened back to the election of the "Straight Arrows," claiming it proved "contentious and costly." His fear, Bownes continued, is that without a primary two "reasonable people" could file for office and a third candidate of "a particular persuasion" could join the race. The two like-minded candidates could split the vote, leading to the election of "a radical, a candidate who doesn't really represent the views of the a majority of voters in the ward."

In other words, Bownes said that Lahey believes that without a primary there is a risk that two-thirds of the vote could be split two ways, enabling a candidate representing a minority perspective to win the election.

"I'm just expressing a point of view," Bownes insisted. "I'm not sure where I come down this."

Bolduc countered that holding a primary would not prevent a minority candidate who mounted an aggressive write-in campaign from winning a general election against one or two declared candidates on the ballot.

"Write-in candidates," Bownes replied, "are different animals."

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 March 2014 12:52

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Belmont selectmen decline to sponsor block grant for study of Gale School

BELMONT — Selectmen last night unanimously opposed being the sponsor of a federal community development block grant that would pay for a feasibility study for the Gale School.

Town Administrator Jeanne Beaudin told the selectmen she had spoken to Shaker Regional School District Superintendent Maria Dreyer and the private Save the Gale School Committee about sponsoring a possible U.S.D.A. Community Development Block Grant for $12,000, but said she needed selectmen's approval.

"How can we asked for a grant for a building we don't own?" asked Selectman Jon Pike.

Beaudin explained that a school district can't apply for a CDBG grant, but a municipality can. She said the town would only be a sponsor, but would not fill out the application and she was only acting as a conduit between the School District the CDBG.

The town doesn't own the Gale School. It is owned by the Shaker Regional School District and is on School District property. Built about 120 years ago, there has been a movement afoot to relocate the school to a corner lot near the Belmont Middle and Elementary School campus.

According to a letter sent to the town on Aug. 16, 2013, and made public at a Shaker Regional School Board meeting, the Gale School is eligible for the National Register, a determination made in 1985.

The letter said the Gale School "was listed ... as an important Colonial Revival-style building in the town. Many of these resources have irreplaceable architectural detail and historic import to the town."

In 1977, the Shaker District built Belmont Elementary School and relegated the Gale School to be used for cold storage.

Selectmen contended last night that while there have been a number of attempts to find the money to save the old school or possibly relocate it, there has never been any hint of evidence that the School District would spend the money needed to restore or relocate it.

"We don't own it, we don't see a use, and the town isn't willing (to spend any money on it)," said Selectman Ron Cormier who is the selectman's representative to the Heritage Commission, and is at odds with its other members who want to find a way to preserve the building.

He said he would support some kind of effort to save the bell tower and incorporate it into something in the village area. Others, including some members of the Shaker School Board and selectmen have, echoed this sentiment.

Cormier also said there have already been a number of feasibility studies done on the school and for selectmen to sanction another one by sponsoring a federal grant would be a "wild goose chase."

"Eventually, if we keep dragging it on maybe the building will collapse into itself," he said.

Selectmen's Chair Ruth Mooney said that if the School District is so interested in saving the school then they need to do the work.

Pike agreed, saying that if the town sponsors the grant it will be "sticking its neck out" and possible be on the hook for the entire restoration, especially since the Save the Gale School is private and its members can "walk away at any time."

"I'm not in favor of having a public hearing," said Mooney, referring back to Beaudin's original request. Pike and Cormier agreed.

"Just because a building is old, it doesn't need to be saved," Cormier said.

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 March 2014 01:04

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Laconia police to pay attention to distracted drivers

LACONIA — Police officials reported they investigated 68 traffic accidents in February, 16 of which were on Union Avenue.

Fifteen of the accidents were caused by unsafe backing up, 11 were caused by skidding, and while 14 were categorized as driver inattention.

Chief Chris Adams said one of the new Problem Oriented Policing (POP) teams is focusing on traffic safety, and driver inattention will be one of the issues the team will address.

He said it is hard to determine when driver inattention is attributable to cell phone use, but said the department is waiting for the state Legislature to decide whether or not cell phone use will continue to be allowed and will address the issue at that time.

"It is illegal to text while driving," Adams said.

Of the 68 accidents reported, 16 occurred on Union Avenue, while there were four each on Court Street, Gilford Avenue, Oak Street, Parade Road, and South Main Street.

Adams said those roadways continue to be streets with the highest accident rates. They are also some of the most traveled streets, and part of the POP project will focus on those areas.

In February, police issued 14 summons and arrests, and issued 205 warnings.


Last Updated on Friday, 21 March 2014 12:52

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Discussion of meeting minutes leads to dispute for Belknap County Convention

CONCORD — In a brief meeting at the Statehouse this week, recorded by no fewer than four video cameras, the Belknap County Convention approved the minutes of the meeting held on March 4, which began with a dispute over the minutes of the meeting of Feb. 18, when a motion to adopt the 2014 budget recommended by the Belknap County Commissioners fell one vote short.

On the snowy evening of Feb. 18, Rep. Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), who chairs the convention, delayed the start of the meeting 44 minutes for lack of a quorum. While she waited to open the meeting, she arranged for Rep. Guy Comtois (R-Barnstead), who was tending to a failing roof, to participate by telephone.

The issue before the convention was the adoption of the budget prepared by the Republican majority, which trimmed $858,350 from the budget presented by the commission. Shortly after Worsman called the meeting to order, Rep. Beth Arsenault (D-Laconia) moved to adopt the commissioners' budget. The motion failed on a tie vote, seven-to-seven, as two Republicans sided with the five Democrats in support of Arsenault's motion and Comtois, voting by telephone, joined the six Republicans present to force the deadlock.

Within the week the five Democrats asked the Belknap County Superior Court to overturn the vote, charging that Worsman violated the Right-to-Know in allowing Comtois to participate by telephone. Noting that the statute does not require the convention to allow one or members to participate by "electronic means," they  claim the decision properly rested with the convention, not the chair. Moreover, they charge that no notice was given to the convention that Comtois would be permitted to participate by telephone nor was the reason he could not be physically present recorded in the minutes as the statute requires.

When the convention next met on March 4 Worsman sought to amend the minutes of meeting of Feb. 18 to show that before the meeting was convened she and other members referred to the Right-to-Know law and discussed the procedure for allowing Comtois to participate by telephone. She proposed adding the following statement: "This was done after consulting RSA 91-A:2 with specific examination/discussion of RSA 91-A:2, III for its permissibility of having Rep. Guy Comtois participate by phone."

Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) reminded Worsman that at the time there was no quorum and not all those who were present were party to the discussion. Arsenault questioned recording a discussion that took place before the meeting in the minutes. When Worsman's motion to amend the minutes was put to a vote there was much confusion about who was and was not present when the supposed discussion occurred and therefore would be eligible to vote. Ultimately the motion failed five-to-four, with five abstentions. With an eye to the litigation, Worsman tersely noted that the minutes were approved without reference to the discussion of the Right-to-Know law prior to the meeting.

This week, when the convention addressed the minutes of the March 4 meeting, Rep. Ruth Gulick (D-New Hampton) was troubled to find that the discussion of Worsman's attempt to amend the minutes of the Feb. 18 meeting, including the wording she proposed, was recorded.

After a sharp exchange between Gulick and Worsman the convention approved the minutes of the March 4 meeting by a roll call vote of 11 to 6 with one abstention.


Last Updated on Friday, 21 March 2014 12:36

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