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Keene proposes licensing program for social services, group homes, shelters

A Keene City Council committee has instructed city staff to draft an ordinance establishing a licensing process for congregate living facilities and social service providers.

On Wednesday, the Planning, Licenses and Development Committee voted unanimously to move forward on a proposal from city staff to amend Chapter 46 of the city code to require licenses for establishments including group homes, drug treatment facilities and homeless shelters.

In addition, the ordinance would create a licensing committee that would review not only those licenses, but also all license applications that are submitted to the city.

City Planner Tara Kessler explained that the proposal for the ordinance grew out of conversations about a new development code during joint Planning Board and planning committee meetings. Originally, the licenses were being considered as part of the new development code, which the joint committee has been discussing, but the committee decided to introduce the idea separately, Kessler said.

There are nine property uses that would be required to obtain a license under the suggested ordinance. Those are drug treatment clinics, fraternity and sorority houses, large group homes, small group homes, group resource centers, homeless shelters, lodging houses (which already require a license), residential care facilities and residential drug treatment centers.

Those organizations would first need to get a conditional use permit from the Keene Planning Board before appearing before the licensing board. Organizations that are already operating would have one year to get a license, but new ones would have to get the license before they could begin operations.

The licensing board, which Kessler said would be a public body and likely have five members, would have the ability to approve, suspend or revoke licenses. The board would use different sets of criteria for determining whether to grant, suspend and revoke licenses, and how to approach violations committed by license holders.

Some of the criteria for granting the license would include showing that the operation is in compliance with the submitted plans and that the use doesn’t cause a nuisance or a safety concern. Licenses would have to be renewed annually, and there would also be an appeal process.

The discussion drew comment from only one member of the public, Tom Savastano, who emphasized that there’s a difference between well-run group homes that are good neighbors and poorly run ones that harm their neighborhoods.

He questioned the sort of supervision these facilities would have on site and asked for more information about a part of the proposed license plan that requires anyone opening a congregate living or social service facility to establish a neighborhood relations plan.

Kessler explained that this plan could take many forms depending on the use but would largely cover communication with adjacent property owners or other entities, like the police or fire departments.

She said the next step would be for an ordinance to be introduced at the City Council meeting on April 5, then referred back to the planning committee at its April 21 meeting.

Councilor Kate Bosley, who chairs the planning committee, praised the proposal and the work city staff has done on it. She said it benefits both neighbors of congregate living facilities and the people who operate them.

The proposed language “helps the neighbors feel like there is an avenue for them to have a voice still and to have some protections,” she said, “and for people who are applying for these license to have some protections as well, knowing that there’s a review process and that they know what expectations are going to be asked of them from the beginning.”

Push for gun control is pledged anew

BOULDER, Colo. — The mass shooting that left 10 people dead in Boulder, Colo., has reignited calls for gun-control measures at the local and federal level, with lawmakers pressing for legislative action to ban assault weapons, and activists urging officials to get “weapons of war” off the streets.

A day after the massacre — one of the biggest mass-casualty events in the region since the Columbine High School attack of 1999 — President Biden called for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines as well as an expansion of background checks for gun sales.

Gun-control advocates have tried to push through these initiatives over the past decade, but Republicans and gun rights advocates have long throttled these efforts, and have continued to speak out against reform, even after two mass shootings in a week left eighteen victims in Colorado and Atlanta.

Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver, a Democrat, said in an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday that he would fight for stronger gun-control laws.

“I intend to advocate strongly, so I will testify down at the statehouse, I will do whatever I can at the federal level,” said Weaver, who spoke Wednesday with Biden about the shooting and next steps. “The fight is not over because of the tragedy of Monday. We will continue, I will continue to work on this issue as much as I can.”

Weaver also said his city would appeal a ruling by a Boulder County district judge that blocked the city’s 2018 ban on assault weapons less than two weeks before the rampage.

Authorities say the suspect in Monday’s grocery store shooting, 21-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa of Arvada, Colo., had purchased an AR-15-style firearm on March 16 that would have fallen under the assault weapons ban that had been in place.

Dawn Reinfeld, a Boulder resident and co-founder of the gun violence prevention group Blue Rising, said that they were calling for the city to fight in court to reinstate the assault weapons ban and expand it statewide. The group also advocates a mandatory waiting period to buy guns in Colorado.

“Now is the time,” she said. “Weapons of war do not belong in our communities and in our streets.”

Vice President Kamala Harris also called on Congress to pass legislation to end the nation’s plague of mass shootings. “The slaughters have to stop,” she said on “CBS This Morning.”

Colorado’s firearms community, meanwhile, has urged caution.

The Colorado State Shooting Association, one of the plaintiffs that sued Boulder over the assault weapons ban, said in a statement that “there will be a time for the debate on gun laws ... But today is not the time.”

Wednesday, the city of 106,000 flanked by snow-capped mountains made plans to remember the dead as investigators continued to search for a motive in the attack.

Alissa was charged Tuesday with 10 counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder in the killings Monday at a King Soopers grocery store, which sent dozens of survivors running for their lives.

Authorities said Alissa, who had a history of erratic and violent behavior, was set to appear in court Thursday morning. His appearance in Boulder County court will be the first time he has been seen in public since police arrested him outside the store, stripped to his shorts with blood from a gunshot wound rushing down one leg.

In a news release Wednesday, the district attorney’s office in Boulder County said Alissa’s hearing this week would be live-streamed.

“It is anticipated that this Appearance will be the first court appearance in what will likely be a lengthy court process,” the district attorney’s office said in the release.

On Wednesday night, hundreds were set to gather in near-freezing temperatures at several prayer vigils planned to honor the victims, who ranged in age from 20 to 65 and include three store employees and a Boulder police officer, Eric Talley, a father of seven who was first on the scene and suffered a gunshot wound to the head.

At a news conference Wednesday in Lafayette, Colo., an uncle of one victim, Rikki Olds, 25, remembered his niece as a “light” in their family who loved the outdoors and dreamed of becoming a store manager at King Soopers. She was one of the employees killed at the store along with Teri Leiker, 51, who was a huge University of Colorado sports fan, and Denny Stong, 20, the youngest victim, who was training to become a pilot.

“When Rikki showed up at the house, we never knew what color her hair was going to be, we never knew what tattoo she may have,” Robert Olds said. “But that was Rikki, and Rikki lived life on her terms.”

In an emotional question-and-answer session, Olds smiled one minute remembering how his niece snorted when she laughed, and was saddened the next while talking about how she would not experience marriage or motherhood.

He was joined by Carlee Lough, a mutual friend who worked with Rikki at King Soopers. Lough said Rikki, whose nickname was “Wendy” because she usually wore her hair in braids, would do anything to make them smile, including dancing to music at work.

“If you needed a pick-me-up, you knew where to go,” Lough said.

The last contact Olds tried to have with Rikki was a text message as the shooting was unfolding: “Are you OK?”

Rikki never responded, he said.

“There’s a hole in our family that won’t be filled,” he said. “We try to fill it with memories, but, you know, that’s tough. It’s tough.”

The other victims were Kevin Mahoney, 61, a retiree from hospitality development awaiting the birth of a baby granddaughter; Suzanne Fountain, 59, a member of a Denver theater troupe, Lynn Murray, 62, a former photo editor; Tralona Bartkowiak, 49, who ran a popular clothing store; Jody Waters, 65, who also worked in retail; and Neven Stanisic, 23, a refugee who had fled war-torn Bosnia as a youth and was in the store fixing the coffee machines at the time of the shooting.

Until two lethal rampages this month, mass shootings had largely been absent from headlines during the coronavirus pandemic. But people still died of gun violence at a record rate — nearly 20,000 Americans last year, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive, more than any other year in at least two decades.

Even though the rate of mass shootings slowed last year, there have been at least seven mass shootings since the pandemic started, according to The Post’s public mass shootings database.

New details also began to emerge Wednesday about Alissa’s background. He was one of 11 siblings in a family that immigrated to the United States from Raqqa, Syria, two decades ago and opened a string of restaurants in the area.

In a now-deleted Facebook page, Alissa posted pictures of his high school wrestling career, exhortations to prayer and other memes from his Muslim faith and the hashtag: #NeedAGirlfriend. Alissa’s family was trying to find a wife for him, but without success, a cousin told The Post.

Alissa began exhibiting violent tendencies in high school, records show.

After a classmate allegedly called him a “terrorist” and an ethnic slur, Alissa had a look of “pure anger” on his face as he punched the student in November 2017 to the point that the teen was bleeding and his eye was partially shut, according to a police report from the Arvada, Colo., Police Department.

Alissa pleaded guilty to charges of third-degree assault the next year, according to police records. The records were first reported by the Daily Beast and KDVR.

Alissa told police at the time that a classmate had been bullying him in several ways over the course of a year, from calling him a “terrorist” to posting a Snapchat video in which the student allegedly called Alissa a “nerd.”

On Nov. 27, 2017, math teacher Stephanie Bashford was just about to wrap up her fifth-period class when she heard some students yelling, according to police. When she turned around, the teacher reportedly saw Alissa punching the student in the face. She and another student broke up the altercation, police said.

Alissa told Arvada officers that he didn’t remember the incident that much. The reason, he said, was because he “could not take it anymore, so I blacked out and rushed him.”

A separate police report from 2018 showed that Alissa was accused of criminal mischief stemming from an altercation with an ex-girlfriend. He was not charged in the incident.

Arvada police confirmed the 2017 and 2018 incidents to The Post. Officials said they would be addressing the suspected gunman’s past incidents more in coming days.

NH lawmakers float plan to trim governor's emergency powers in state budget

CONCORD — Budget writers in the N.H. House are making some key decisions — on policy and tactics — as they work to meet deadlines to get a spending plan out the door.

House Finance Committee Chairman Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican, surprised colleagues Wednesday with a proposal to add language to the state spending plan that would limit emergency powers granted to New Hampshire governors. While such a policy change might seem irrelevant in a piece of legislation that is largely devoted to detailing the dollars to be spent on state programs over the next two years, Weyler was frank about why he wanted it added.

“What we are trying to do is find enough votes to pass the budget, and some of the people have pledged to vote if we can get this amendment in,” Weyler said.

The amendment would limit states of emergency to 21 days, with one renewal, absent legislative approval or a determination by the House clerk that at least half of House members were “incapacitated or missing.” Under those circumstances, the governor would have a free hand to extend states of emergency.

Weyler’s proposal does not come out of the blue. Gov. Chris Sununu’s use of emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic has become a sore point for lawmakers of both parties. Still, Weyler’s proposal drew only Republican backing Wednesday.

“This amendment restricts management of the state in a time of crisis and puts the health and wellbeing of our citizens in danger,” Sununu told InDepthNH.org.

Democrats, including Rep. Sharon Nordgren, who has been in the Legislature for more than 30 years, questioned a clause limiting governor’s emergency powers being shoehorned into a spending bill.

“The public is watching this, and I’m shocked, I’m shocked,” Nordgren said.

“It’s sausage-making,” Weyler replied.

The panel was more united, voting unanimously, when it came to backing the closure of the Sununu Youth Services Center, the state’s detention facility for minors, effective July 2022.

Right now, the Manchester facility’s secured building has a 144-bed capacity; most days fewer than 20 minors are housed there. The state spends more than $10 million a year to keep the center open, which occupies a sprawling campus in the north end of Manchester.

The center’s cost is one reason lawmakers seem likely to close the facility. But the Sununu Center is also now the focus of a lawsuit that alleges more than 230 former residents were abused by staff at the facility, stretching back decades.

The proposal sets aside $2 million to wind down the Sununu Center, which would be repurposed or sold. It also includes money to retrain workers who would be displaced by the closure.

“They are going to need to get ready for all the transitional costs of closing down,” said Rep. Mary Jane Wallner, the House Finance Committee’s ranking Democrat. “And getting the children placed in appropriate placements.”

The budget plan goes for a vote by the full House Finance Committee next week.

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New charter school in Keene ups enrollment, hires leader
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A new public charter school set to open in Keene this fall plans begin the year with 250 students, nearly twice as many as initially expected, according to its recently hired leader.

Luke Goodwin, who became the lead administrator for Gathering Waters Charter School about two weeks ago, said the N.H. State Board of Education voted earlier this month to allow the school to add a kindergarten class and increase its enrollment from 15 to 25 students per grade in 1st through 9th grades.

“I think what it tells you from the interest is that parents and students are looking for something new and different,” Goodwin, 45, said of the Waldorf-inspired school, which the State Board of Education initially approved in December. “I think that they see our mission and are excited about a holistic education.”

The school’s curriculum will draw on Waldorf education, which emphasizes elements such as child development, community involvement and fostering a lifelong love of learning, said Goodwin, who has roots in the area and was part of the founding 1st-grade class at the Tomte-Gubben Waldorf School, which later became the Monadnock Waldorf School.

“We’re offering students an education that enables them to discover their own interests and their own capabilities,” he said. “They’ll get to explore the surrounding world. There’ll be a big component of outdoor education, environmental education and sustainability. They’ll be able to develop a sense of community responsibility. The idea of service to the community will be very, very important.”

Gathering Waters has not yet finalized where in Keene the school will be located, but Goodwin said that announcement should come in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, even with the expanded enrollment, Goodwin said Gathering Waters still has waitlists for most grades. There are open spots in 3rd, 6th, 8th and 9th grades. The school also plans to add 10th through 12th grades over the next three years, for an eventual total enrollment of around 325.

Goodwin, who has a master’s degree in Waldorf education from Antioch University of New England in Keene and spent the last 13 years as the administrative director at the Chicago Waldorf School in Illinois, added that he believes the new school’s focus on social interaction is especially attractive to families as they begin to look beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re an education rooted in relationships,” he said. “And so that social component will be so important after all of the social isolation that our children have had.”

The school will start with 26 staff members, whom Goodwin said are coming from all over the country. That includes several teachers from the Monadnock Waldorf School, which announced in December that it will close at the end of the academic year. The private school cited shifting demographics in the region, including fewer school-age children and economic issues that make tuition a struggle for some young families, as the main factors in the decision to close.

And though several staff members and families will be making the transition from Monadnock Waldorf School to Gathering Waters, Goodwin said the two remain separate entities.

“There has been such a conscious effort to really have a closing of one school, a school that has been in the area for I think almost 40 years, and to have that closing and saying goodbye to Monadnock Waldorf School be very separate from the opening of the Gathering Waters Charter public school,” he said. “And that’s been really nice to see, and it’s not just one school becoming another.”

Goodwin, who lived in Antrim as a child before moving to suburban Philadelphia, added that he considers his new role at Gathering Waters a homecoming.

“This really feels like moving home with my family,” he said, adding that his wife, Kate, will be working at the High Mowing School, a private Waldorf School in Wilton. “Those formative early childhood and elementary years were in the area, and then I returned in my early 20s for graduate school, and now I’m returning in my 40s for Gathering Waters.”

Gathering Waters is set become the fourth charter school in the region, according to the state Department of Education. Surry Village Charter School, which serves students in kindergarten through grade 8, opened in September 2006. MC2, a charter high school, opened a Keene campus in August 2015. And LEAF Charter School in Alstead, serving students in grades 9 through 12, opened in August 2017.

Another local group is seeking approval from the State Board of Education to add yet another charter school in the Monadnock Region beginning in the fall of 2022. Monadnock Classical Academy has submitted a charter to the state to open a school with a curriculum based on “classical education,” including an emphasis on liberal arts and sciences.