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Keene looks at requiring city candidates to report contributions

Should mayoral or City Council candidates in Keene have to report their campaign expenditures and contributions to the clerk’s office?

Councilors narrowly recommended drafting an ordinance that would impose such requirements at a committee meeting Thursday night.

They voted 3-2, with councilors Bettina A. Chadbourne, Terry M. Clark and Mitchell H. Greenwald in favor. Councilors Carl B. Jacobs and Thomas F. Powers dissented.

The discussion follows a proposal from Clark in June to adopt a policy similar to the one in Nashua, which requires political committees to register with the city and candidates to report all expenditures and contributions to the clerk’s office. Contributions over $10 must have the name and address of the campaign contributor, according to the ordinance.

At the June 13 finance, organization and personnel committee meeting, Clark said that rules like these provide transparency, promote open and fair elections, inform voters about whose money is financing a candidate, and deter “actual or perceived corruption.” He added that he hoped to see a policy enacted before November’s city elections.

But City Clerk Patricia A. Little told the committee Thursday that this can’t be done by then.

After the committee sent Clark’s proposal to staff for review last month, Little said she researched Nashua and four other cities with requirements for campaign finance reporting: Portsmouth, Manchester, Dover and Concord.

“Of all those communities, there’s not a single community that has an ideal campaign finance ordinance, in my opinion,” she said.

She broke down the requirements in other municipalities into sections, such as who is subject to the requirements, and the contribution and expenditure thresholds that trigger the reporting mandate. She proposed that councilors pick what they like from each ordinance, which would give staff direction in drafting one for Keene.

Lower thresholds, Little said, would increase the burden on both her office and on the candidates.

Clark made a motion that staff draft an ordinance with the following conditions:

It would apply only to mayoral candidates.

Once a candidate reaches $1,000 in total contributions or expenditures, they would then have to report anything over $50. (Clark originally suggested a $25 threshold but later increased it.)

The reporting period would begin with the prior municipal election, “because then nobody can play games about, ‘Well, I haven’t announced yet, and I’m gonna wait until I announce,’ ” he said.

Deadlines for reports would align with Nashua’s policy: 20 days prior to the city election and again by Dec. 1 after the election, along with some additional requirements for mayoral primaries and special elections.

Lastly, Clark asserted there shouldn’t be any enforcement or penalty language in the ordinance, arguing that “public exposure” would do that job.

“The only reason that I want this is because I think the public has a right to know where people are getting their money and what they’re spending. Simple as that,” Clark said. “I don’t wanna punish anybody.”

But this issue — who would enforce the ordinance or investigate violations — dominated the discussion Thursday night. Little stressed to the committee that she doesn’t want her office to be involved, since she could face an uncomfortable situation of investigating a future boss.

Almost none of the other communities stipulated in their ordinances how enforcement would be handled, she noted, though they all mentioned fines for violations. Portsmouth uses an ethics board to investigate potential violations, and a few other municipalities stipulate that candidates may not take their office until they comply with reporting requirements.

Clark suggested adopting that idea, but City Attorney Thomas P. Mullins cautioned that he couldn’t find anything in state law that gives a municipality the authority to deny someone their elected office. He urged councilors to think about the enforcement piece and how that would be handled.

Throughout Thursday’s discussion, Clark said several times that he wants to keep the ordinance as simple as possible.

Other councilors, though, had several logistical questions about the fine details. Greenwald, a mayoral candidate, asked about what constitutes a contribution.

“So if, I don’t know, Tom [Powers] decides to take me out to lunch, is that a contribution?” Greenwald asked.

Little referenced a state definition, though Mullins said the Secretary of State’s Office advised against following its reporting requirements for state elections too closely.

While Clark said contributions could be limited to monetary gifts, Jacobs posed a situation in which someone gives a candidate signs and said that could be considered a contribution.

Jacobs added that the $1,000 trigger seems too high to accomplish the goal of transparency.

“I’m not sure I wanna do this, but let’s do this all out in the open, and, you know, there’s nothing magic about $1,000 in that regard,” he said.

He tried to amend the motion to lower that threshold to $50 in cumulative contributions or expenditures, at which point a candidate would have to report all expenses and receipts, but the amendment died when no councilor seconded it.

Mullins noted that the councilors could consider another option: a voluntary cap. When residents declare their candidacy to the clerk’s office, he explained, they could sign a pledge not to spend or receive more than a specified amount.

Though Clark said he doesn’t think any requirements should go beyond mayoral candidates since Keene is a small city where councilors don’t spend much money on campaigns, Powers disagreed.

While noting that he was undecided on whether a policy should be adopted, Powers said, “As a councilor, I shouldn’t be any different than the mayor, because we’re all getting elected to represent everybody here.”

Meanwhile, Chadbourne said she has mixed feelings on the matter but voted yes to let the full council discuss it next week.

Though saying she’s on board with the goal of making elections more transparent, Chadbourne expressed concerns that stringent reporting requirements could discourage people from participating in local government, which already sees sparse community involvement.

And any campaign finance ordinance needs consequences to be effective, she argued.

Councilors debated the merits of finance reporting for 45 minutes. But near the end of the meeting, Jacobs said any decision on such a proposal should boil down to one question: “Does this bring us better government?”

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff 

June Wilson of Newtonville, Mass., hand-feeds three goats at the Friendly Farm in Dublin Wednesday. A visit to the farm in Dublin is a tradition in the area that’s often passed down from generation to generation.

GOP-backed voting restrictions under fire

Maggie Flaherty was so upset that she was too young to cast a ballot against Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election that one of her first missions when she arrived as a freshman at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire the following year was to register to vote.

Then the California native learned about a new proposal from state Republicans that would subject college students who vote in the state to residency requirements such as getting in-state driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations.

“That costs money,” said Flaherty, who along with a classmate and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state after the law passed. “And I don’t think it should cost money to be able to vote.”

The fight in New Hampshire is one of at least a dozen legal skirmishes being waged across the country, in the run-up to the 2020 election, that are financed by Democrats and liberal activists who hope to overturn or head off measures they fear could erode the electoral might of young voters — an increasingly left-leaning voting bloc.

Over the past decade, Republicans in more than a dozen states have tried to limit the kinds of student IDs that can be used at the polls, restricted the number of polling locations on or near college campuses, or gerrymandered political boundaries that divide campuses and dilute the power of student voters, as well as other measures.

Among the states with laws that Democrats fear could hamper the youth vote in 2020 are battlegrounds including Wisconsin, Florida and New Hampshire.

Republicans say the rules are meant to prevent fraud and safeguard the integrity of elections, and they deny accusations that they are trying to make it harder for young people to vote.

But there is little doubt that Democrats had more to gain when young voters engaged in recent elections. Voters under 30 turned out in record numbers last fall, helping to power a liberal wave that swept Democrats into power in Congress.

At the same time, that age group still cast ballots at far lower rates than all others. Voting-rights activists believe one reason is a slew of restrictions pushed by GOP state leaders in recent years.

Democrats and their allies are planning to spend millions of dollars on lawsuits arguing that such measures are unconstitutional and aimed at dissuading the participation of young voters.

“Elections are oftentimes a game of inches,” said Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer in Washington who is leading many of the challenges. “Young voters, particularly given the size of the millennial generation, can be measured in feet or yards. The difference of one percentage point here or there can be the difference between victory and loss.”

Young voters have eluded Democrats for decades, and they are still not close to realizing their full electoral power. In the 2018 midterms, their turnout rate was little more than half that of voters overall, according to data from Tufts University and the University of Florida.

Yet from 2014 to 2018, participation among young voters rose seven percentage points, according to the Tufts analysis. More than two-thirds of them voted for Democrats in 2018, according to exit polling data — a higher margin than seen in a generation.

“That swing of 18- to 29-year-olds was responsible for adding two percentage points to the popular vote for Democrats this election,” said John Della Volpe, polling director for the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “There were 10 seats that Democrats won by less than two points.”

Narrow electoral margins are among the reasons New Hampshire has emerged as a pivotal legal battleground over the youth vote.

In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the state by fewer than 3,000 votes, or three-tenths of a percentage point. Democrat Maggie Hassan unseated Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte with a victory margin of just 1,017 votes.

Trump falsely claimed the results had been stolen, and state Republicans lamented that college students from out of state may have swayed the outcomes.

Two years later, Republicans moved to pass a law requiring voters to comply with strict residency requirements such as getting a New Hampshire driver’s license and vehicle registration. Voting rights advocates said it would disproportionately affect out-of-state students.

Supporters of the new law said it was intended to combat fraud and noted that New Hampshire was the only state that did not require voters to be legal residents.

“We have a group of people who say, ‘This is where I live, but don’t have to register my car here. I don’t have to get my license like everyone else in this room has to do,’ “ said Sharon Carson, a Republican senator from Londonderry, New Hampshire, during debate on the measure. “And yet we allow them to vote here.”

As he signed the measure last July, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said it “restores equality and fairness to our elections.

“Finally, every person who votes in New Hampshire will be treated the same,” he said. “This is the essence of an equal right to vote.”

Opponents argued that unlike in some other states, residents who move to New Hampshire are required to switch over their driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations within 60 days. The penalty for not doing so can reach $1,000. The cost of a new license is $50 and vehicle registration can cost hundreds of dollars, depending on the car, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

In its suit, the ACLU argued that the requirement is the equivalent of a poll tax. “There’s certainly an effort to keep the electorate to a known, identifiable group,” said Julie Ebenstein, a lawyer with the ACLU litigating the case. “They certainly weren’t subtle.”

Sherman Packard, the Republican state representative who sponsored the bill, rejected the notion that the measure imposed financial barriers to voting.

“This lawsuit came from college students that are going to Dartmouth,” he said. “Do you know how much it costs to go to Dartmouth? It’s $50,000 a year. So don’t tell me it’s a hardship to register your car here.”

Republicans across the country began enacting a new wave of voting restrictions in 2011 after seizing control of a majority of state legislatures the prior year.

The volume of measures grew after 2013, when the Supreme Court decided, in Shelby County v. Holder, to strike down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that required certain jurisdictions, mostly in the South, to obtain federal permission to change voting rules and district boundaries.The elimination of that requirement triggered a flood of new laws that included constraints that affected young voters, such as a voter ID law in North Carolina that restricted the use of student IDs at the polls.

Researchers say voting laws have a disproportionate impact on young people, who are often transient and less engaged in their local communities.

“We know from long-standing research that young people are more sensitive to changes in election law,” said Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Young people haven’t established a voting habit yet. So these things either get in the way or enable them to get that habit started.”

In states they control, Democrats have sought to encourage youth voting by making registration easier and extending the period of early voting, even as many GOP-controlled states have gone in the other direction with new restrictions.

In some cases, debates about the measures have been laced with town-and-gown tensions, with lawmakers complaining that the votes of longtime residents were being overwhelmed by those of temporary college students.

A conservative Arizona lawmaker named Bob Thorpe, whose district includes Northern Arizona University, proposed in 2017 blocking students from registering to vote at their college addresses unless they change their driver’s licenses, because local voters “are being drowned out by the student population.” The measure didn’t pass.

In an interview, Thorpe said his constituents were “very frustrated” by the impact of “part-time students” after a local referendum in 2016 raised the minimum wage in Flagstaff. “That voter referendum got pushed over the finish line by students going to Northern Arizona University,” he said.

As part of their legal strategy, Democrats and civil rights groups are scouring state codes for both new and old measures that they believe could hinder young people from voting.

One such measure in Texas was passed in the wake of the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which guaranteed the right of 18-year-olds to vote.

The law, which is still on the books, does not allow new voters to preregister to vote until they are 17 years and 10 months old. Democrats are considering challenging the law — and potentially four similar ones in Alaska, Georgia, Iowa and Missouri — on the grounds that they give younger voters a smaller window to register than others, according to a strategy memo obtained by The Washington Post.

The efforts to strike down laws that opponents argue discriminate against young voters comes after they failed in some cases to topple those same measures with claims of racial discrimination.

Activists lost a battle in 2015 over Wisconsin’s voter ID law, for instance, but Common Cause Wisconsin filed a lawsuit in April arguing that the same law discriminates against college students. The measure requires student IDs to include a signature, an issuance date and an expiration date no more than two years after the issuance date — features that are not always included on cards issued by universities.

Under the law, which passed in 2011 and was implemented in 2016, the requirements are not all mandated for other accepted forms of IDs used at the polls, such as those carried by faculty members.

Also in Wisconsin, activists in 2016 successfully overturned limits to early voting locations, which they argued affected minority populations as well as students. The case remains on appeal. In Iowa, opponents blocked a proposal this year that would have prohibited early-voting on the campuses of the state’s three public universities.

Another challenge is underway against political boundaries in North Carolina that have, among other things, diluted the power of college campuses. The case, which is before the Supreme Court, includes congressional district boundaries that divide the campus of the historically black campus of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro.

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In Florida, Democrats succeeded last year in temporarily blocking a prohibition of early voting locations on college campuses, which Republican officials had argued was necessary in part because such locations offer insufficient public parking.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker issued a temporary injunction against the law last July, accusing state officials of “a stark pattern of discrimination.”

“It is unexplainable on grounds other than age because it bears so heavily on younger voters than on all other voters,” Walker wrote in his ruling. “Throwing up roadblocks in front of younger voters does not remotely serve the public interest. Abridging voting rights never does.”

With the policy suspended, election officials in nine counties chose to operate early-voting locations on 12 college campuses in last fall’s midterm elections. More than 60,000 cast ballots at those locations. And overall, turnout among under-30 voters in Florida was up 13 percentage points, according to Tufts University. Preliminary data released this month by researchers at the University of Florida shows that early voting on college campuses helped boost turnout.

The legal fight over the Florida law is ongoing, however. Republican lawmakers passed a law this year blocking voting at locations without “sufficient non-permitted parking,” which Democrats and civil rights groups say is a new way to implement the same restriction. On Monday, they filed an amended lawsuit seeking to strike the new law, as well.

In New Hampshire, the new residency law has yet to be implemented because of the ongoing lawsuit. Turnout, meanwhile, jumped in the state last fall and helped Democrats take over the state’s House and Senate. Its five largest college communities saw turnout increases from 2014 to 2018 of between 31 percent and 56 percent, according to America Votes, a liberal voting-rights group.

Caroline Casey, a rising junior at Dartmouth and a plaintiff alongside Flaherty in the ACLU case, said that if anything the new law has made her more engaged in New Hampshire politics — even though she’s from Louisiana.

“It made me kind of up my level of involvement,” she said. “I got really passionate about educating people, about raising awareness of the importance of voting rights for all students.”

The new Democratic-controlled legislature repealed the residency law this year, although Sununu has signaled that he will veto the repeal.

Among the new Democratic lawmakers who voted for repeal is Democratic State Rep. Garrett Muscatel, a 21-year-old who moved to New Hampshire from California in 2016 to attend Dartmouth. After joining a suit against an early version of the residency law, he decided to run for office.

“The only way to stop voter suppression,” said Muscatel, now a rising senior, “was to get in the legislature myself.”

US restaurant growth may be at an end

We’ve just been through America’s belle epoque of restaurants.

What’s more, the party is over and most of us are blithely unaware. The restaurant industry is frequently the precursor for a market correction, an early harbinger of a bear market or even a recession to come. And some experts are saying that an unfortunate confluence of factors — oversaturated restaurant markets, rising labor and food costs, weak sales, changing consumer tastes and loyalties, a shrinking middle class, declines in mall traffic, bank and investor skittishness about returns on investments — means the near future looks bleak.

This is the thesis of “Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End,” a new book by James Beard Award-winning food journalist Kevin Alexander.

Alexander argues that, starting in 2006, we experienced a transformative period for the U.S. restaurant industry.

He ticks off some of the innovations: the rise of “fine casual dining” (those restaurants with dangling Edison bulbs and exposed brick and in-your-face ambitious food that doesn’t lean overmuch on fine linens or fancy stemware), craft cocktails, farm-to-table dining, the hipification of non-Western food, the audacity of food truck culture, the democratization of criticism via social media.

But now we should prepare for a shake-up.

“There are too many restaurants,” Alexander said in a phone interview. “There hasn’t been a recession since 2008, and a recession gets the people who aren’t serious out of the way. Austerity breeds creativity.”

He is not alone in this prediction. David Henkes, a senior principal at food service industry analyst firm Technomic, says that for a number of years, the rate of restaurant growth has exceeded population growth.

Too many restaurants are chasing too few consumer dollars, he says. Part of this is because of demographic changes. People age 35 to 54 go out to eat most often. Younger than that and they may not have enough earning power or may be saddled with student loans; older than that and careers are winding down and there may be less travel or disposable income.

“In 2007, 41 percent of consumers were in that sweet spot; today it’s only about 34 percent,” he says, adding that we’re still five to seven years away from the huge millennial generation fitting neatly in the spending sweet spot.

Problem is, restaurants can’t just eke along until then. Subway closed 1,100 locations in 2018, and Starbucks aims to shutter 150 underperforming stores this year, according to Amanda Topper, associate director of food service research at market research firm Mintel. And “fast casual,” order-at-the-counter restaurants are in a far better position than full-service casual restaurants.

Henkes thinks the restaurant market is overbuilt. And while he predicts a raft of closures of wobbly chains and individual locations, he says dining out is an ingrained consumer behavior in 2019 and unlikely to diminish significantly across the board. Even during the recession of the last decade, dining out was a relatively cheap way to indulge, the way lipstick sales spiked during the Great Depression.

“People aren’t suddenly going to learn to cook in the next three years,” Henkes says. But “there’s a dichotomy in dining behavior. You’re either convenience-driven or experience-driven. Casual dining is caught in the middle.”

He says consumers are eschewing the big casual chains like Applebee’s in favor of local, chef-driven independent restaurants. But even those appear to be on shaky grounds in many markets.

Alexander says part of the reason local, chef-driven independent restaurants may be struggling is that we’ve entered what he calls the age of the operator.

“The gestation period to develop new ideas in Portland in the middle of the last decade was years,” Alexander says. “Now if you don’t have your act together in three months, someone is going to take your idea and own it. It doesn’t matter where they live, if they have the resources and skill to execute better than you can, anyone can plagiarize you.”

When Instagram and Yelp are crowded with 300 pictures of your latest dish or cutting-edge bar decor, imitation isn’t just a form of flattery; it’s intellectual theft that is entirely legal and impossible to prevent.

Greg Baker is one of Florida’s most celebrated chefs, and the Refinery, his farm-to-table restaurant in Tampa, has been heaped with accolades. But the restaurant is struggling, because of market saturation and high labor costs, and Baker is trying to sell it.

“Everything has gotten more expensive, but nobody has any more disposable income than they did before the recession, so you can’t adjust your prices. There’s a lot of value shopping these days, people looking for giant plates of food for $9,” Baker says, adding that the dining public isn’t willing to pay more for name-brand local produce and proteins and has tired of farm-to-table menus.

“The point gets lost when every menu has a list of the provenance of their ingredients. No one wants to be lectured about their food,” Baker says. “I’m tired, I’m beaten up. This has run its course.”In an industry where profit margins are frequently in the single digits, adding in food delivery options such as Uber Eats or DoorDash originally seemed to offer an added revenue stream without the expense of extra kitchen staff, expanded hours of operation or additional equipment. Growth in that area has been explosive: Henkes says last year $10 billion in revenue was generated by third-party delivery companies. But, says Henkes, at some point delivery cannibalizes existing restaurants.

Most third-party delivery services are charging 25 to 30 percent, which squeezes restaurants’ profit margins further. For a small independent restaurant it’s tough. Baker lost money on delivery.

Cultural appropriation of food is another trend Alexander sees that takes away from a progenitor (think Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville, an incendiary marinated-then-fried local invention that commands cultish devotion) and homogenizes food nationally (KFC hot chicken!).

An argument could be made that if fine-dining restaurants disappear, to be replaced by cookie-cutter fast-casual spots, not much is lost but elitist clubhouses for the 1 percent. But they are the incubators of new ideas, says Alexander, “the academic chapels of learning.”

“They don’t need to be for everyone, they shouldn’t be. It’s almost like couture lines: Fashion houses lose money on them, but that’s what pushes fashion forward. You need those to exist in food,” Alexander says, alluding to the famous blue sweater scene in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

And while Alexander laments the passing of the hip fine-casual chef-driven restaurants in his book, he thinks they may be partly responsible for their own demise.

“When we started to think everything was all about the food and who cares about the service and decor, it opened up a dangerous Pandora’s box. The logical extension is ‘fast casual’ — who even needs waiters? It was a failure to appreciate the full dining-out experience.”

But Alexander is hoping for a pendulum swing back in the other direction.

“I hope it will come back around to the simple sit-down restaurant that cares about service. And maybe I’ll check my phone with the phone-check person. And I’ll be invested in the meal and the conversation.”

Sounds nice.

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Long-planned Winchester development again appealed to high court

WINCHESTER For the third time, a plan to build a gas station, convenience store and drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts in town is headed to the N.H. Supreme Court.

It’s another delay for the project at the intersection of routes 10, 78 and 119, some version of which has been in the works since at least as far back as 2012.

After the Winchester Planning Board approved the latest plan in January, a nearby grocery store, Kulick’s Inc., appealed the decision to Cheshire County Superior Court. Judge David W. Ruoff upheld the approval in May.

After unsuccessfully asking the Ruoff to reconsider his ruling, Kulick’s filed a notice of appeal with the N.H. Supreme Court July 3.

In its superior court challenge, and now the appeal, Kulick’s has argued that the planning board should have required a barrier preventing left turns into the site from Route 10, and vice versa.

Courts can strike down planning board decisions only if board members made a legal error or came to an “unreasonable” decision. In his May order upholding the approval, Ruoff wrote that the Winchester Planning Board reviewed ample evidence about traffic during hearings in December and January, and reached a “lawful and reasonable” decision.

Kelly Dowd, the attorney representing Kulick’s, declined to comment on the appeal Thursday. Gary Kinyon, the lawyer for S.S. Baker’s, was not available to comment.

S.S. Baker’s plans to build a gas station and convenience store with a drive-thru Dunkin’ Donuts at 4 Warwick Road. The company’s manager and registered agent, Teofilo Salema, has other Dunkin’ franchises in the Monadnock Region.

The proposal first came before the Winchester Planning Board in 2012. The board rejected it that year, prompting an court appeal from S.S. Baker’s. The N.H. Supreme Court decided against the company in 2014.

Meanwhile, in 2013, the planning board approved a revised plan — which Kulick’s in turn appealed. The Supreme Court denied that appeal in 2016, clearing the way for S.S. Baker’s to develop the site.

But the company returned to the planning board with a modified plan, after having acquired an adjoining property. The extra space allowed the planned building to be expanded and placed farther back from the road. This was the plan the board approved in January that is now the subject of the court challenge.