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Courtroom recount reverses outcome of Stoddard selectboard race

STODDARD — Even as vote totals have shifted throughout an election in June, a recount and a lawsuit in July, and a second, court-supervised recount Thursday, the race for a Stoddard selectboard seat has maintained a one-vote margin.

The latest result shows challenger Stephen McGerty winning the seat from incumbent Charles Fosberry 109-108, confirming the outcome of a previous recount that had reversed the initial result. The court-ordered recount Thursday means McGerty now can take office unless there’s an appeal.

In the June 23 election, the initial results showed Fosberry defeated McGerty for a three-year term, 108-107. McGerty then requested a recount, which took place July 3, and saw his vote count rise by three to 110 and Fosberry’s by one to 109.

Five days later, Fosberry filed a lawsuit in Cheshire County Superior Court questioning the recount’s validity due to how the ballots were handled between the election and the recount. He said at the time that he wanted the results of the recount voided, and the initial tally from the June election upheld.

The lawsuit resulted in a court-ordered recount Thursday morning. Each of the parties to the lawsuit — Fosberry, McGerty and the town of Stoddard — chose three Stoddard voters to serve on an advisory commission that oversaw the recount. Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David W. Ruoff told the panel during the hearing that its job was to examine each ballot and determine if they had any objections.

“If you cannot infer the intent of the voter, it’s not a good ballot,” Ruoff told the group at the hearing, which was held in a courtroom and broadcast live via the Cisco Webex online meeting platform. “… If there’s any ambiguity, it’s not a good ballot.”

But neither the nine-person commission nor representatives for the parties in the lawsuit raised any objections during the roughly 90-minute hearing. After the commission and parties reviewed the ballots, Ruoff and Civil Clerk Jessica Masterson counted the ballots independently and arrived at the same total: 109 votes for McGerty and 108 for Fosberry. Ruoff said the parties now have 30 days to file an appeal in the case.

“I’ve won twice, but I have to wait to see if there’s going to be an appeal,” McGerty said in a phone interview after the hearing Thursday. “... This has just been downright dumb.”

Fosberry, however, said in a separate phone interview that he does not intend to appeal the court order. His attorney, Joseph S. Hoppock of Keene, confirmed via email that they do not plan to appeal. Fosberry declined to comment further on the outcome of the case.

At the end of the hearing, Hoppock questioned the total number of votes cast in the race. He said 219 votes were cast in the original election. Six ballots were not included in the tally Thursday because they either were left blank for the selectboard seat, or included a vote for a write-in candidate, Hoppock added.

“The vote total is 108 to 109, and that’s 217 ballots for a total of 223 ballots cast,” Hoppock said in court. “Somehow, there’s four more ballots in that box after election day.”

Ruoff said he could speak only to the ballots that the commission reviewed and approved during the hearing.

“I don’t know how to account for what a prior total was,” Ruoff told Hoppock. “All I know is what was in this box, that the commission approved and didn’t see any evidence of any fraud or any type of forgery or anything like that. Nine independent people reviewed every ballot. I reviewed them. I didn’t see anything, so I don’t know how the totals — your totals — mismatch.”

Hoppock said after the hearing that he’s not sure how the total number of ballots went from 219 in the election-day tally and first recount to a higher number on Thursday.

“It is possible that the election day count and the July 3rd recount were both in error, but I am at a loss to explain how 4 extra ballots ended up in that allegedly sealed ballot box,” Hoppock said in an email.

Fosberry’s lawsuit claims the handling of the ballots after the election raises questions about the validity of the initial recount. According to the lawsuit, Town Clerk Karen C. Bell read a statement at the beginning of the July 3 recount acknowledging she’d opened the sealed box of ballots days prior. Fosberry also alleged Deborah McGerty — who is the deputy town clerk and tax collector and is married to his challenger — had access to the box before it was resealed.

Bell said in a written statement to the selectmen that on June 30, she opened the sealed ballot box because she realized she had accidentally left absentee ballot request forms, information she needed to put into an online system municipalities can use to send election results to the state, and notes she’d taken on election day inside the box. She said she then closed the box and kept it beside her for the rest of the day before re-taping it and returning it to a locked closet.

Bell said she notified the N.H. Municipal Association, the N.H. Secretary of State’s Office, Town Moderator Daniel A. Eaton and selectmen of her mistake.

She and Deborah McGerty declined to discuss the case with The Sentinel in July. Reached Thursday, Bell said, “There’s really not much to say. He thinks that there was tampering, and there wasn’t. That’s pretty much it.”

By court order, the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office collected the ballot box from Bell and turned it over to the the court, where it was kept in a secure evidence room before Thursday’s hearing.

Hoppock said Thursday that the burden of proof for a plaintiff in a case like this is high, and the court could order a new election only if disputed ballots affected the result of the election, or if there was fraud.

“Here, while suspicions exist, there is no direct proof as to who may have placed 4 extra ballots in that box,” he said in an email. “It is also plausible that the election day count AND the July 3rd recount were incorrect. Anything is possible, I suppose.”

It’s not yet clear when the transition will happen and McGerty will take his seat on the selectboard. Fosberry, who has been serving as a selectman and attending meetings while the lawsuit was being resolved, said he believes the court order is effective immediately, but McGerty said he had not been told when he can be sworn in.

“As of right now, I’m in limbo,” he said Thursday afternoon. And in the meantime, McGerty, who previously served as a selectmen, added, he is eager to serve the town.

“I just want to work for the people. I have no agenda,” he said. “… I just want to do the right things for the town.”

Pedestrians take advantage of a sunny fall day Thursday at the Riverwalk in Peterborough.

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Kilanski, Quevedo square off for Winchester seat in NH House
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After voters chose to oust the district’s veteran state representative in the primary, two Winchester residents are vying for the Cheshire County House District 13 seat in November’s general election.

Republican Ben Kilanski, 43, has been a town firefighter for 20 years and is also the manager of Ashuelot Land and Water Co. in Winchester. He is chairman of the Winchester selectboard, as well as a member of the town’s budget committee, conservation committee and drug-free coalition.

His Democratic opponent, Natalie Quevedo, 37, is the chief contracting officer for New York State Solar, a Ronkonkoma, N.Y.-based company that designs and installs solar systems. This is Quevedo’s first time running for public office.

Quevedo defeated incumbent Rep. Henry A.L. Parkhurst, who has held the seat for nearly two decades, in the Democratic primary Sept. 8. Kilanski ran unopposed on the Republican ballot.

Cheshire County House District 13 covers only Winchester. N.H. House members are elected to two-year terms.

Kilanski said he is running for the seat because he feels “Winchester and most of Cheshire [County] need a strong voice in Concord.”

If elected, he said his priorities boil down to one thing — government spending.

His main goal is to properly fund education in New Hampshire, as it’s the largest part of residents’ tax bill. Kilanski explained that this could be done by overhauling the state budget and reallocating funding.

“At the state level it is a problem with the way funding is structured,” he said in an email. “A new tax would be a new problem and not a solution. The state doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem.”

Similarly, Quevedo said previously that Winchester needs more funding for education.

She pointed to the recent $1.6 million cut to the school district budget proposal, which Kilanski supported. Voters cut the proposed budget during the annual deliberative session in February, when they amended the warrant article. Residents then approved that lower budget at the polls in March.

To stay within the reduced budget, the school board later announced it would cut full-day kindergarten, busing to Keene High School and all athletics and field trips, among other things.

“Our teens have no way to get to High School in Keene, our entire sports program was cut and a lot of [teachers] lost their jobs due to the town vote,” Quevedo said previously in an email. “This to me is NOT acceptable. We need to be able to fund our children’s future.”

She said Winchester has some of the highest tax rates in the state, but has one of the lower-funded schools, and that needs to be addressed on the state level.

According to 2019 tax rates published by the N.H. Department of Revenue Administration, Winchester’s tax rate was exceeded by those of only four other communities (Berlin, Charlestown, Claremont and Keene).

To fix this, Quevedo said funds should be redirected from more fortunate communities with a surplus in education funding.

“By setting a set property tax rate for all towns specifically based on median income we can ensure that our education system is [properly] funded for every town, not just the most affluent,” she said in a text.

Another priority for Kilanski is addressing the financial impact of N.H. Department of Environmental Services’ project regulations.

He explained that these regulations can increase costs, and he wants to see fewer mandates on small-town construction repairs and projects.

Ultimately, though, Kilanski said he wants to rework the state’s financial structure to “fill the needs of all towns.”

“It will significantly help the burden on the residents and businesses,” he said.

Quevedo said that New Hampshire’s reliance on property taxes to fund “everything” leads to wealth disparities across the state.

“New Hampshire needs to create an EQUAL tax system so that families struggling in the state are not burdened with the highest property taxes thus allowing them to stay in our state and in their homes,” Quevedo said.

The issue she is most passionate about is climate change, pulling from her work in solar energy. If elected, she said previously she will push for further investment in renewable energy, developing more solar projects and giving better tax incentives to those using green alternatives.

“Our [planet] is in turmoil. Our global temperature is rising, oceans are warming, ice sheets are shrinking, sea levels are rising, and we are having more and more extreme weather events,” she said. “NH NEEDS to become one of the leaders in Climate Action and it needs to happen now.”

This article has been changed to clarify Natalie Quevedo’s vision for education funding.

Hockey rinks in NH ordered to close after wave of outbreaks

Indoor hockey rinks in New Hampshire are being ordered to shut down for two weeks after being linked to a spate of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Health officials say at least 158 youth and adult players have tested positive during the past two months, including players from 23 different teams.

“This is not a decision taken lightly, by any means,” said Gov. Chris Sununu during a press conference Thursday. “But we have six outbreaks now. We’ve been working with this community for a couple of months, it’s not getting better.”

The shutdown applies to both youth and collegiate teams, as well as recreational skating.

Health officials say infections associated with hockey are responsible for possible COVID-19 exposures in at least 24 different K-12 schools in the state.

“So hockey has not only been a high activity for acquiring COVID-19, but the people diagnosed with COVID-19 associated with hockey, and the people associated with these outbreaks, have likely led to other community exposures,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan.

The state is crafting new restrictions that will be released before hockey is allowed to resume at indoor rinks on Oct. 30.

“We are going to come back with some new guidance, be able to take a break, disinfect the facilities, ask everyone to get tested, and I think come back and hit the reset button,” said Sununu.

Earlier this month, a youth hockey referee from Maine tested positive for COVID-19 days after officiating a weekend of games in that state and in New Hampshire, potentially exposing up to 400 people. In September, at least a dozen cases of COVID-19 were linked to a hockey training camp in Nashua.

NH schools get major boost in COVID relief funding

Schools in New Hampshire are getting an additional $45 million to help with coronavirus-related expenses.

Gov. Chris Sununu announced the funding at a press conference Thursday, following recommendations from lawmakers on the Governor’s Office for Economic Relief and Recovery Legislative Advisory Board.

Most of the money — which comes to the state from the federal CARES Act — will go to school districts directly, at a rate of approximately $200 per pupil.

This is more than what schools received earlier this year in CARES funding, which many districts say falls short of costs associated with pandemic, such as protective gear, facility upgrades and technology needs for remote learning.

Sununu said the per-pupil funds can be spent flexibly any time before the end of 2021. “They can be spent on things like Chromebooks or computers or technology to make sure these students have access to quality education while they may be in a hybrid or even a remote learning atmosphere,” he said.

The additional $45 million also includes a $10 million emergency “reserve fund” for districts unable to cover coronavirus-related expenses even with the additional aid.