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Keene City Council votes to take Winchester Street properties by eminent domain

Despite threats of legal action from one of the property owners, the Keene City Council has voted to take portions of land from three Winchester Street parcels by eminent domain to move ahead with a reconstruction project at the street’s intersection with Key Road.

The city intends to replace the existing four-way intersection with a roundabout, which officials expect will alleviate traffic congestion. This is part of a larger project that will also include adding a roundabout at the intersection of Winchester, Island and Pearl streets as well as replacing the Island Street bridge.

During Thursday’s meeting, the council voted unanimously to take small pieces of three parcels on either side of the western part of the intersection. The two parcels at 345 Winchester St. are owned by Sandri Companies, which operates a convenience store and Sunoco gas station at the site. The other parcel, 333 Winchester St., is owned by Keene Retail, Inc. and currently home to Chipotle.

Some of the access required by the city for the roundabout project would be temporary, but both properties would lose the driveways closest to the intersection. For 333 Winchester St., this is the only driveway from Winchester Street, and 345 Winchester St. would lose one of two entrances from Winchester Street.

Attorney Michael Hanley, who represents Sandri, has said previously that if the city moves forward with eminent domain proceedings, the company would have no choice but to take the matter to court.

“The city has not been able to negotiate a resolution for us to take over ownership,” said Councilor Thomas Powers, who chairs the council’s Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee, which was tasked with reviewing the eminent domain proposal. “Therefore, we have had to initiate this condemnation process to get ownership of the land.”

Eminent domain, also known as condemnation, is the process by which a government can take private property by force if it will be put to public use and as long as the landowner receives just compensation.

The council voted unanimously Thursday to move forward with eminent domain proceedings, with the exception of Councilors Bettina Chadbourne, Gladys Johnsen, Raleigh Ormerod and Robert Williams, who did not vote as they did not attend a site visit related to this project.

The council’s vote comes just over two weeks after the FOP Committee voted unanimously Dec. 22 to recommend that the council move forward with the eminent domain process.

Attorneys representing the owners of the properties have stated they feel the compensation being offered by the city was far from adequate.

Hanley said during a Dec. 17 public hearing that the city made at least two “absurdly low” offers of $600 in one case and about $14,800 in the other. He called this “an abuse of power” and argued that Sandri should be compensated not only for the loss of land, but also for the loss of business the company expects to result from the removal of one of its driveways.

“The loss of the curb cut by Keene Retail on Winchester Street would substantially impact the business,” said Steve Clark, attorney for Keene Retail, during the Dec. 17 hearing. “And the compensation that has been offered was extremely low.”

In addition, Michael Behn, president of Sandri Companies, said he feels the roundabout project fails to address the root of the traffic congestion problem. Also speaking at the Dec. 17 hearing, Behn said the issue stems from the limited access points to both Key Road and the Riverside Plaza.

He suggested looking at options for creating new access points and said that would limit the traffic congestion at the intersection.

However, according to Gene McCarthy, of McFarland Johnson — a Binghamton, N.Y., design firm that has been working on this project — the notion of adding additional access points was looked at during the planning process, but the N.H. Department of Transportation was not in favor of the idea.

“This was sort of an ‘absolutely no,’ the DOT will not entertain that idea,” McCarthy said.

The $4.27 million project will be financed via an 80/20-percent split between the N.H. Department of Transportation and the city. The project also requires gaining access to several other properties along Winchester Street, but these are the only two the city has been unable to strike an agreement on.

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Winchester School to remain fully remote at least through early February

WINCHESTER — With COVID-19 cases still high throughout the region, the Winchester School Board voted unanimously Thursday to keep classes fully remote at least through early February.

Winchester School, which enrolls about 440 students in preschool through 8th grade, transitioned from a hybrid model to fully remote instruction on Nov. 16, after Cheshire County eclipsed a seven-day rolling average of 10 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, a tipping point laid out in the school’s reopening plan.

“Since we made that decision, the data has not changed for the better,” Principal Valerie Carey said during the school board meeting Thursday evening, which was held via Zoom. “It certainly has changed for the worse. Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen a bit of leveling off in the rising of the numbers, but that has certainly not brought it back to within the range that we were at before the decision to go remote in November.”

Carey noted that Cheshire County on Wednesday had a seven-day rolling average of 31 new cases of the viral respiratory illness per 100,000, according to data published by the Brown University School of Public Health that Winchester’s board uses to make decisions. Additionally, Winchester saw its first COVID-19 case among the school community on Monday.

That case has led six staff members to quarantine due to potential coronavirus exposure, Carey said, which affects the school’s ability to provide some in-person services to the small handful of students officials have determined need them during remote learning.

“When we were talking about this in November, I had indicated to you that the impact on the school at the time was really in staffing strain,” Carey told the school board. “And that continues to be the largest concern in that we have no flexibility in our staffing at this time.”

A lack of substitute teachers contributes to these staffing challenges, Carey added, along with the 23 positions that were eliminated after last school year as part of the $1.6 million budget cut that Winchester voters approved last March.

“Those are teachers, those are paraprofessionals, and those are assisting staff who just are not here,” Carey said. “... So, that’s a concern.”

Based on Carey’s report to the board, Chairwoman Lindseigh Picard said “it sounds like ... it would be almost impossible for our students to return to campus at this time in a hybrid model, even.”

Before switching to remote learning in mid-November, Winchester School had been operating under a hybrid model in which students were split into groups that attended classes on campus and remotely on alternating days. High-schoolers from Winchester attend Keene High School, which has been operating fully remotely since Nov. 30.

Board member Todd Kilanski proposed that Winchester stick with fully remote instruction for now, and revisit the decision at the first meeting of each month until they establish a return date. The board approved Kilanski’s motion by a vote of 4-0.

The first meeting of February is slated for Feb. 4. Picard noted that the board could vote to return to a hybrid model at a later meeting in February, too, if local coronavirus cases drastically decrease before the first meeting in March.

The Winchester board’s decision to continue with remote classes for now keeps the school in line with the vast majority of area districts. Schools in SAU 29 — which covers Keene and six nearby towns — were originally scheduled to resume some in-person learning on Monday, but delayed that move until Jan. 19 due to the heightened potential for coronavirus transmission if families and school staff traveled or gathered with people outside their homes for the holidays.

The ConVal School District, Fall Mountain Regional School District, Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District and Hinsdale School District also are scheduled to resume some in-person instruction on Jan. 19.

The Monadnock Regional School District was the only area district to return from winter break Monday with a hybrid model. School board members in the Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — have said they believe schools remain safe despite rising coronavirus cases throughout the region, and students benefit from at least some in-person learning.

James Faulkner Elementary School in Stoddard also returned to in-person instruction Tuesday, after a COVID-19 case among the staff last month prompted the school to switch to remote learning.

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State sketches timeline for vaccines

New questions about the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plans are cropping up almost as quickly as new details are released.

On the heels of Tuesday’s press conference, during which the state laid out the broad strokes of the distribution schedule, several logistical questions have popped up: When can I get my COVID-19 vaccination? Where can I sign up to get my vaccine?

Unless you’re in the first group of vaccine recipients, there’s no easy answer.

New Hampshire is in the midst of vaccinating its first phase of recipients which includes frontline workers, healthcare providers, and staff, and residents at long-term care facilities. As of last week, more than 21,000 shots had been administered, about a fifth of the estimated amount of people in phase 1A.

At Tuesday’s press conference, health officials announced they expect to vaccinate the next group of people, 1B, between January and March. This group includes those 75 or older, those with severe medical vulnerabilities, staff in correctional facilities, and residents and staff at facilities that serve those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The group is about twice as large as 1A.

Gov. Chris Sununu said the demographics in each stage were determined by who was in most need of the vaccine.

“This is all about making sure the health care system doesn’t get overrun, making sure we have room in the hospitals, and making sure the most vulnerable are protected,” he said.

The rest of the stages, listed below, will receive their vaccines well into the spring and summer. Until then, Gov. Chris Sununu pleaded with the public to continue abiding by public health guidance.

“You wake up every morning and just have a little metric for yourself,” he said. “If the day ends in a ‘y’, make sure you social distance, wear your mask, and do everything you can to stay safe. Now is absolutely the wrong time to loosen up.”

The state hasn’t announced any mechanism for signing up for a vaccine appointment but recommended people check the DHHS COVID-19 page and stay in touch with their primary care providers to stay up to date on announcements about distribution. Those who are receiving healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs will be notified when they are eligible for the VA’s supply of the vaccine.

Here is the state schedule for when vaccines are expected to be given to each group. This timeline may change as the number of doses allocated to New Hampshire by the federal government changes:

Throughout January: Phase 1A (about 110,000 people) High-risk health workers; first responders; residents of long-term care facilities.

January through March: Phase 1B (about 225,000 people) People over 75; the medically vulnerable at significant risk (defined here), including caregivers for those under 16 at risk; staff and residents of facilities for the disabled; corrections officers and staff.

March through May: Phase 2A (about 175,000 people) Staff and teachers at K-12 schools and childcare facilities; people aged 65 through 74.

March through May: Phase 2B (about 200,000 people) People aged 50 to 64.

May and beyond: Phase 3A (about 325,000 people) The medically vulnerable at moderate risk under 50 years old.

May and beyond: Phase 3B (about 325,000 people) Everybody not already vaccinated.

All of New Hampshire’s COVID-19 information can be seen online at nh.gov/COVID19. More information about the vaccine is available on the Health page.

Trump faces demands for his removal, but is there time to act?

WASHINGTON — Congress’ Democratic leaders on Thursday demanded President Donald Trump’s removal from office — vowing a swift impeachment, if necessary — in an effort to stop him from unleashing more chaos in his final, rage-filled days.

Both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer called on Trump’s Cabinet to oust him by invoking the 25th Amendment, which was designed to remove a president who is incapacitated or unwell. They warned that the House would quickly consider impeachment articles if that does not happen.

Schumer said he and Pelosi tried to call Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday morning to urge him to follow the 25th Amendment, but Pence would not take their call.

“While there are only 13 days left, any day could be a horror show for America,” Pelosi said, calling Trump “a very dangerous person who should not continue in office” and adding: “This is urgent, an emergency of the highest magnitude.”

Dozens of House Democrats, including some from conservative districts, echoed the call for a second impeachment and at least one Republican called for Trump’s removal by the Cabinet.

But forcibly ousting a president — even if a Cabinet were to invoke the 25th Amendment — is a laborious, time-intensive process. And even if Trump were impeached again, removing him requires a two-thirds vote of the Republican-controlled Senate, which acquitted him nearly a year ago, after his first House impeachment, and has shown no sign of openness to the idea now.

It was not at all clear Thursday if Trump could be prevented from serving out the remaining 13 days of his term, short of his resignation.

After a day in which pressure mounted to drive him from office before Jan. 20 — not just from Democrats but from some Republican governors and the conservative editorial board of The Wall Street Journal — Trump finally delivered what amounted to a concession speech to try to mollify the critics. But his video statement was probably too little, too late to quiet the clamor.

To expedite impeachment, House Democrats were considering starting the process on the House floor, without waiting for the House Judiciary Committee to act.

As longtime supporters rushed to distance themselves from a lame-duck president whose unhinged behavior has put the nation on edge, the political wreckage has left his party in distress and divided.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other White House officials resigned their posts, and Trump’s head of Homeland Security, his former attorney general and two former chiefs of staff condemned him.

Some allies who had been loath to criticize a president who demands absolute loyalty broke ranks, calling his behavior indefensible.

“The president needs to understand that his actions were the problem, not the solution,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been one of the most prominent apologists for Trump.

Graham said he is contemplating supporting the Cabinet’s resort to the 25th Amendment. “If something else happens, all options would be on the table,” he said, adding, “I am hopeful that the worst is behind us and that we can transfer power on Jan. 20.”

Former Trump chief of staff John F. Kelly has seen enough. He told CNN that if he were still in the Cabinet, he would be working with his colleagues to remove Trump immediately.

Whispers about the president being removed from office involuntarily ricocheted through Washington, as did grim assessments of Trump’s political future. But most Republicans were reluctant to talk publicly, continuing to hedge amid worries that Trump will prove resilient even from the fallout of his supporters’ riot Wednesday at the Capitol — as he has from so many other infamous episodes in his political career.

“A lot of people figure Inauguration Day cannot get here soon enough,” said a beleaguered House GOP leadership aide. “He certainly damaged himself.”

The bedlam in the Capitol also unsettled party leaders attending the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee in Florida. When RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel addressed the riot, she was so upset she cried, according to two sources at the meeting. But when Trump called into the meeting Thursday, he did not mention the violence. While some cheered him, others remained silent.

The quandary for Republicans was distilled on Wednesday during Congress’ session ratifying the presidential election results, when Trump allies challenged the outcome on his behalf. More than 100 House Republicans stuck with the president even after the Capitol had been overrun by rioters just after Trump addressed the crowd and urged them to fight for him.

Yet the earlier speculation among some Republicans that Trump could win back the White House for them in 2024 had gone silent. Of his legacy, veteran Republican strategist Mike DuHaime said, “If it is not destroyed, it is very damaged.”

Even Pence, Trump’s staunchest loyalist, distanced himself from Trump after the president called the rioters “special people” and said “we love” them. Pence condemned the mob in sharp terms as he presided over the Senate late Wednesday night.

“The vice president demonstrated yesterday that he was in charge, that he was demonstrating leadership,” said Jon Thompson, a former Pence adviser. “I don’t think we can say the same thing for President Trump.”

The relief when Trump finally leaves office will be bipartisan, but many Democrats seeking his early removal privately are resigned they’ll probably have to wait until Inauguration Day.

The House’s impeachment move is more symbolic — Democrats say they can’t let the account of the Capitol siege appear in history books without a response.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., called it “important to show future generations that Congress didn’t just ignore what happened yesterday and that we put on record our efforts to try to remove a president that instigated an attempted coup.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the articles of impeachment lodging charges against Trump should be brought to the floor immediately, bypassing his panel. With the House adjourned, members were discussing whether to try to convince Democratic leaders to call members back to vote.

The risk of House Democrats moving quickly to impeach the president is that it could tarnish the action if hearings are not held and Trump is not given time to respond.

There is also discussion about the House voting to censure the president. But Schumer touted impeachment as an opportunity to prohibit Trump from ever again occupying the Oval Office, saying, “That should be invoked.”

One prominent Democrat who was notably silent on the issue was the man who will replace Trump on Jan. 20.

Joe Biden angrily denounced Trump’s actions around the Capitol siege during an event to introduce his nominee for attorney general, Merrick Garland. But he announced at the top of the news conference in Wilmington, Delaware, that he would not address the movement to expel Trump. He and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris ignored shouted questions as they left the room.

A statement from Biden’s transition team said he and Harris “will leave it to Vice President Pence, the Cabinet and the Congress to act as they see fit.”

The two Democrats instead focused Thursday on their promise to restore the rule of law by appointing leaders at the Justice Department who will not answer to them, but to the Constitution. Both critically contrasted the restraint that law enforcement showed against the predominantly white attackers who terrorized Congress with the force used in the summer against Black Lives Matter protesters.

“We witnessed two systems of justice,” Harris said. “We saw one that let extremists storm the U.S. Capitol and another that released tear gas on peaceful protesters last summer.”

Just before Biden and Harris took the stage, Chao announced her resignation as transportation secretary in a letter that said she was motivated by her distress over the Capitol mayhem that Trump inspired. McConnell, Chao’s husband, had broken with Trump just before the siege, in a forceful floor speech debunking Trump’s false claims that widespread election fraud and other improprieties deprived the president of a second term.

But his and Trump’s critics declared it too little, too late. They pilloried Chao for leaving her post instead of staying put and initiating an effort with her colleagues to invoke the 25th Amendment.

The Cabinet, though, probably has little power to jettison Trump from the Oval Office with so few days left in his term. The 25th Amendment is complicated, and its procedures can take a month to work through. In the more than half-century it has been in the Constitution, it has never been used to involuntarily sideline a sitting president.

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., acknowledged as much. “Time and circumstances may mitigate against invoking the 25th Amendment, which I support,” he tweeted, “but there is time for impeachment which seems appropriate.”

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Keene man among those who breached Capitol; Troy chief at D.C. protest
  • Updated

At least two area residents, both with law enforcement backgrounds, participated in Wednesday’s protest in Washington, D.C. — and one of them was among the crowd that stormed the Capitol building — although both have condemned the violence that took place.

Jason Riddle — a former mail carrier and former corrections officer who lives in Keene — entered the building after it was breached by rioters. Meanwhile, Troy Police Chief David Ellis’ presence at the protest has drawn a call from the N.H. Democratic Party for the chief to resign.

Five people died amid the chaos, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer.

Ellis was quoted by Intelligencer, a web publication run by New York Magazine, where he identified himself as a supporter of President Donald Trump but also criticized the destructive mob and decried the treatment of the Capitol Police.

Ellis said in the Intelligencer story that he thought the effort to overtake the Capitol “was not going to solve a thing, and then to see the police get treated the way they were treated, it’s ridiculous.” The story, which doesn’t specify exactly where Ellis was during the interview, described him as the only person interviewed to express displeasure with what was occurring at the Capitol building.

Still, Ellis told Intelligencer he didn’t regret his decision to attend the protest. “There’s a lot of Trump supporters that are awesome people,” he told the publication. “Like me.”

Efforts to reach the chief were unsuccessful Thursday and Friday morning. He is expected to be back in town Friday, according to the Troy Police Department.

In the meantime, N.H. Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley called on Ellis to resign in a news release issued Thursday afternoon.

Richard H. “Dick” Thackston III, chairman of the Troy selectboard, said the board has been contacted by several dozen people calling for Ellis to be fired. But he said he doesn’t think the chief’s presence at the protest will affect his employment with the town (the police chief is a position appointed by the selectmen). Most of the people calling for his termination have been from outside Troy, according to Thackston, who said town residents have largely been supportive of Ellis’ right to express his opinion.

“I ... know, like and trust Dave Ellis; he’s an honest, hard-working guy,” Thackston said. “He has nothing but the best interests of our community at heart.”

However, Thackston also condemned those who participated in the storming of the Capitol, calling the behavior “absolutely appalling.”

Body camera footage taken by a Troy police officer in November showed pro-Trump paraphernalia in Ellis’ office, according to reporting by NHPR. The Cheshire County Attorney reportedly told Ellis to remove a pro-Trump flag, claiming it violated state law prohibiting political paraphernalia in public buildings.

Ellis told NHPR he complied with that directive and would not have hung the items if he knew it was against the law. Cheshire County Attorney Chris McLaughlin could not be reached for comment Friday morning, nor could a N.H. Department of Justice spokeswoman.

On Wednesday, a massive crowd gathered in Washington to protest as Congress convened to certify former Vice President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. That afternoon, the protest turned to rioting as many breached the Capitol building. Riddle, the local mail carrier, said the rioters first gained access to the building via scaffolding that was positioned near the walls.

Lawmakers, including the four members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation, were safely evacuated from the Capitol.

Riddle said he went to D.C. to participate in the protest, believing the election had been stolen from Trump. But despite being among those who entered the Capitol, and posting photos on Facebook, he described the violence he witnessed inside as “chaos.”

He said rioters and law enforcement were exchanging blasts of what he described as Mace even before the crowd overtook the building. He remembered police throwing “tear gas grenades” and said one rioter had loaded Mace into a fire extinguisher, which he was unleashing on police.

“It was horrible,” he said. “I felt so bad for the police officers; they were getting Maced just as much as the protesters.” He also expressed sympathy for Ashli Babbitt, a 35-year-old Air Force veteran from San Diego, who was shot by Capitol Police inside the building and later died. Riddle added, “Breaking through doors is not the answer, you know?”

Asked why he entered the Capitol despite being put off by the violence, Riddle said he simply “wanted to see it.” He said the people inside were smashing windows, computers, printers and throwing things around. A photo he provided to The Sentinel shows a trashed office with debris strewn across the floor.

Riddle said his only involvement in the chaos was finding a liquor cabinet and pouring himself a glass of wine. He said he left the building sometime between 3 and 4 p.m., once efforts to disperse the rioters began in earnest. “I booked it,” he said. “I didn’t go there to get arrested.”

Riddle was a mail carrier in Keene until resigning Dec. 31, according to USPS spokesman Steve Doherty. On Thursday evening, Riddle posted to his Facebook page that he plans to run for Cheshire County commissioner in the second district, which covers Roxbury, Keene and Marlborough.

“I had to drop out of the 2020 race due to my employment at the post office,” he said when asked why he decided to announce a run for the board. “I want to carry on my mission to help our county.”

Riddle said he believes Trump had wanted his supporters to protest but doesn’t feel Wednesday’s violence is what the president was after. He said his fellow Republicans should “calm down” and said rioters accomplished nothing by using violence to take the Capitol.

Since the election was called for Biden several days after polls closed on Nov. 3, Trump has been challenging the results without providing factual evidence, and nearly all of his campaign’s or allies’ approximately 50 lawsuits alleging voter fraud have been dropped or dismissed by courts, according to the Associated Press. The Supreme Court also declined to hear cases aimed at invalidating election results in some states, the AP reported. Wednesday’s demonstration turned violent shortly after the president addressed his supporters.

“...We are going to the Capitol, and we are going to try and ... give our Republicans, the weak ones because the strong ones don’t need any of our help, we’re ... going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country,” Trump said in the conclusion of his speech Wednesday.

The violence resulted in the deaths of five people, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer, and more than a dozen were injured, according to NPR. Congress suspended the debate about the election results and later reconvened to certify them.

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., issued a statement Thursday calling on Trump, who has less than two weeks left in his term, to be removed from office because of the events that unfolded Wednesday afternoon. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., issued a similar call and also urged the president to resign, according to seacoastonline.com. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said Thursday on Twitter that she believes Trump is “unfit for office” but had not explicitly called for his removal as of Friday morning.

Said Kuster, “The violence he incited yesterday undoubtedly played a central role in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. People in America and around the world watched in horror as a mob of pro-Trump domestic terrorists invaded and attacked the U.S. Capitol.”

This article has been changed to add the date Jason Riddle left the postal service.