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Some local clerks report changes in absentee ballot mail, slowing delivery

State election officials say they will work with their counterparts in the U.S. Postal Service to clear up concerns around an apparent policy change that’s causing some absentee ballots to make an extra trip through regional processing hubs, even if they’re just going from one address to another within the same city or town.

As recently as the September state primary, election clerks across New Hampshire say their post offices were able to hold onto absentee ballots heading to or from voters with local addresses. But some clerks now say they were surprised to learn, when shipping out their absentee ballots for the general election, that’s no longer the case.

Instead, some clerks say absentee ballots and other mail that previously stayed local is now being sent through regional processing centers in Manchester, N.H., or White River Junction, Vt. — resulting in an extra day or more of travel time.

Local election officials in Atkinson, Conway, Harrisville, Hollis, Merrimack, Sunapee and Wilmot raised the issue during a public call with the Secretary of State’s office Tuesday morning. Local clerks in several other communities — including Lyme, Milford and Randolph — confirmed separately that they, too, were experiencing the same thing.

Many of those clerks said they learned of the absentee ballot processing changes from employees at their local post offices, who said they received the instructions from more senior Postal Service officials.

“It puts the local post people in an awkward situation as well because they want to keep the ballots in town,” Cathy Lovas, Harrisville town clerk, told state election officials during Tuesday’s call.

NHPR reached out repeatedly to Postal Service officials with questions on context surrounding the recent absentee ballot delivery changes described by New Hampshire clerks.

Stephen Doherty, a regional spokesman for the agency, said the Postal Service’s “number one priority between now and Election Day is the secure, on-time delivery of the nation’s Election Mail.”

While Doherty pointed to a number of steps the Postal Service has recently taken to accelerate the delivery of absentee ballots, he did not address direct questions from NHPR seeking clarification about the changes local clerks have encountered when sending their absentee ballots to voters for the general election.

Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan said Tuesday that his office would follow up on the issue.

“I think that, just based on hearing this conversation, we will approach the post office at the state level so that we can make sure that the policy they put in place is going to allow absentee ballots to be efficiently received and accounted for,” Scanlan told clerks on Tuesday’s call.

It’s not clear how many communities are affected by the changes. Some clerks, when contacted by NHPR, said they haven’t noticed any difference in how absentee ballots are being handled.

It’s also not clear that the change is causing significant delays in the delivery of absentee ballots. It is causing some confusion, however — since clerks in some of the affected towns had been assuring their voters all local absentee ballots would stay local, because that’s how they were handled in the September state primary and other elections.

“I told all my residents, ‘Don’t worry, put it in the mail, it’s all staying local’,” Milford Town Clerk Joan Dargie told NHPR. “Because they all have concerns of what they heard on the news.”

Now, Dargie says she’s going to encourage residents to deliver absentee ballots directly to her office whenever possible — not because she doesn’t trust local letter carriers, but because she wants to keep absentee ballots local as often as possible.

Anne Kenison, the town clerk in Randolph, similarly worried that voters were given mixed messages because local election officials like her didn’t get enough notice about the absentee ballot delivery changes.

“My concern is now that some people might be a little leery about using the post office,” Kenison said. “Because we had told people that you could take them in [to the post office] and they would cancel them right there and deliver it the next day. And I had three people call me and say that that was refused.”

Kenison said her local post office is keeping a close eye on absentee ballot delivery times and doing everything it can to ensure they’re transported efficiently.

Clerks in other communities said the same of their local post offices: One said their local postmaster made extra trips to ensure absentee ballots were delivered ahead of the deadline for the September state primary; another said their local postmaster even created his own chart to track how many absentee ballots are processed each day.

The Postal Service recently launched Local Election Mail Task Forces across the country, including in New Hampshire. The agency is also devoting extra resources to transportation, staffing and processing, according to an agency memo issued last week.

Janice Kelble, a retired letter carrier and legislative director for the local branch of the American Postal Workers Union, said voters can still trust that postal employees are trying everything within their power to shepherd absentee ballots to their destination.

“The last thing in the world that we want to do is to have the public’s confidence in us destroyed,” Kelble said. “So we want ballot mail to be handled as efficiently as we possibly can.”

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Proposed party-host ordinance moves on to Keene City Council

A proposed ordinance that would hold the hosts of unruly parties accountable for the actions of their house guests is heading to the Keene City Council for further consideration.

The council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee on Wednesday voted 4-0 to recommend that a so-called social host ordinance be submitted to the council after hearing a series of revisions to the first draft. The revisions, made by City Attorney Tom Mullins, were mostly related to definition specifications, but some were more significant.

The first draft contained four penalties for violating the ordinance, the first being a written warning. After input from Police Chief Steven Russo, Mullins said the written warning had been stricken from the draft, making the penalty for a first offense $300.

“It was determined that, for all intents and purposes, the written warning was not going to be something that they wanted to do,” Mullins said during the meeting, which was held via Zoom. “If they had to go out and deal with an unruly gathering, my understanding is, from talking to the chief, that they’re going to tell them to stop anyway, but if they don’t, there’s going to be a penalty associated with that.”

The ordinance would require the hosts of social gatherings to ensure that noise stays under control, that any alcohol consumption is in accordance with existing laws and that roads and driveways are not blocked. It also would authorize police to require that guests at a party vacate the premises if the officer determines a gathering violates the ordinance.

The $300 fine could also be applied to party guests who refuse to leave when asked by a police officer to do so. The second and third offenses would come with $500 and $1,000 fines, respectively, and could be issued only to hosts of unruly parties. The ordinance would also require that landlords be notified if a penalty is issued to one of their tenants.

Penalties are cumulative, meaning that if an officer issues a $300 fine, but later that night is called back to the same unruly gathering, a $500 fine could then be issued. However, the sequence of fines would reset one year after the first fine.

Other changes to the first draft, which was modeled after a similar law in San Marcos, Texas, include clarification that penalties would follow individuals rather than remain attached to the residence where a party is held, specifying that penalties would be issued to only one host in the case that there are multiple people on a lease or multiple owners of a single house.

While not officially part of the ordinance, the social host law would also come with a part-time administrative position to track offenses and to contact landlords whose properties were the site of unruly parties where a fine had been issued.

Some concern about this was raised by Councilors Mitch Greenwald and Philip Jones, who felt these tasks could be done by someone already on staff. City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon said the new position would have totally different responsibilities than anyone currently on the city payroll and noted that the cost would be split between the city and Keene State College. According to the draft job description, the position would be part of the Keene Police Department.

“I did run some numbers in terms of ... how much it might cost,” Dragon said. “Between the city and the college, if we end up with a $15,000 to $20,000 share each, to me, it’s worth it if you’re going to invest in a new ordinance and really want to see some success.”

Two members of the public weighed in on the ordinance’s second draft Wednesday night. Grove Street resident Tim Zinn, a member of the Concerned East Side Neighbors group that has been pushing for such an ordinance for years, made several suggestions, including adding language that would hold hosts who violate the ordinance responsible for reimbursing the city for the cost of the services required to break up a party.

Myrtle Street resident Pete Moran, also a member of the neighbors group, commended city officials for their work in moving such an ordinance forward. During past meetings, he had said the frequent parties in his neighborhood have been a problem and that he has been unable to reason with the hosts of such parties.

“I feel very good about all of this,” he said. “And I’m very optimistic.”

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Peterborough deputy clerk resigns, plans to sue
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PETERBOROUGH — Peterborough’s deputy clerk has resigned, but local officials are moving ahead with preparations for the Nov. 3 general election in the wake of a contentious inquiry this summer that concluded Town Clerk Linda Guyette had created a hostile and dangerous work environment in the town office.

In the meantime, the former deputy clerk plans to take legal action based on the conclusions of the third-party investigation into Guyette’s behavior toward her while on the job, she told The Sentinel Thursday.

In a written statement Tuesday, Guyette called many of the investigation’s findings “inaccurate” and said they would not affect her ability to serve in her elected position.

“[T]he public should feel absolutely confident that the Town Clerk’s Office is appropriately staffed and more than capable of carrying out its important duties with respect to its mandates, including this coming election,” she said.

But Peterborough officials expressed concern this fall that tensions between Guyette, who is the town’s chief elections officer, and other municipal staff would hinder their efforts to conduct the November election.

In a Sept. 18 letter to N.H. Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan, Peterborough Town Moderator L. Phillips Runyon said local officials must “put personal interests aside and pull together to conduct this process in the best way possible.”

“While some of the issues undoubtedly involve working relationships among town employees, those are much less significant to me right now than ensuring that our procedures leading up to and during the election are the most effective and efficient [as] they can be,” Runyon wrote.

In the letter, which he wrote after meeting with Scanlan, Guyette and N.H. Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, Runyon said Guyette needed “sole possession and control” of residents’ requests for absentee ballots, indicating concern that she was not in full control of those records at the time. He added that Guyette also needed assistance in executing her responsibilities as town clerk, which he explained were “too demanding for her to focus on this important election without considerable help.”

In an Oct. 2 letter to Scanlan, Peterborough Select Board Chairman Tyler Ward said those concerns have been, or are being, addressed.

Ward explained that Guyette, Runyon, Deputy Town Administrator Nicole MacStay and select board member Ed Juengst met on Sept. 25 to discuss the town’s voting procedures. Deputy Clerk Gayle Bohl, who was not at the meeting, resigned several days later, he added.

Bohl — who appears to have filed the complaints this summer that prompted the human resources consulting group’s investigation into Guyette’s conduct — had served as the town’s deputy clerk since last fall, according to Alison Kreutz, assistant to the town administration.

The results of that investigation, which substantiated four of the five formal complaints against Guyette, caused the select board to ask for Guyette’s resignation in August. The clerk, an elected official who has served in the post since 2009 and whose current three-year term expires in 2021, declined.

New Hampshire town clerks can be removed from office by the local governing body only for having intentionally stolen or misstated public funds, having mismanaged them due to “gross negligence,” or for being unable to execute the role’s responsibilities due to incapacitation, according to state law.

Among the topics that Ward told Scanlan were discussed at the Sept. 25 meeting was Peterborough’s procedure for handling residents’ absentee ballot requests.

Exactly who had been handling those requests, which are processed by the clerk’s office, and the significance of that practice is unclear.

MacStay said Wednesday that while Bohl was largely responsible for processing them, Guyette always had access to the absentee ballot requests and that they were stored in the clerk’s office. Guyette referred a request by The Sentinel for more information to her attorney, who declined to comment on the record.

Scanlan could not be reached for comment.

But in a Sept. 28 letter to the select board, Scanlan echoed Runyon’s concerns and acknowledged a “serious breakdown in the working relationship” between Guyette and Bohl. He encouraged town officials to give Guyette control of absentee ballot requests.

He also expressed concern for what he considered an “apparent usurpation” of Guyette’s responsibilities and that Bohl was uncertain whether she was supposed to report to Town Administrator Rodney Bartlett or Guyette.

“If these clear lines of authority and responsibility are not clearly understood, the result will be a dysfunctional office,” Scanlan wrote. “It would appear to me that this situation is playing out in the Town of Peterborough.”

‘Hostile and abusive’

The relationship between Guyette and the select board has been testy since at least July, when the board tapped the Dover-based consultant Leddy Group to investigate allegations that Guyette was responsible for dysfunction in the clerk’s office and had mistreated town staff.

The complainant, who is not identified by name in the investigation or in correspondence between town and state officials, said she was “exhausted from constant berating and harassment” from Guyette. The complainant also alleged that Guyette had not trained her “to fulfill her role as Deputy Town Clerk,” according to the investigation.

Bohl was Peterborough’s only deputy clerk when the complaints were filed with Bartlett, according to Kreutz, the town assistant. Bohl resigned on Sept. 28, MacStay said Tuesday.

The Leddy Group inquiry concluded that Guyette was “hostile and abusive” toward employees and that she failed to train Bohl.

Bohl said Thursday morning that her attorney, Chuck Douglas, has notified the town administration that she plans to file a lawsuit next week based on the findings of the probe into Guyette’s behavior. Douglas was not immediately reachable by The Sentinel Thursday for comment.

The investigation also determined that Guyette demonstrated “a cavalier attitude towards protecting herself, the public, and town staff from exposure to COVID-19” by entering town hall on June 9 after having tested positive for the coronavirus. Guyette informed Bartlett of her positive test the same day, according to the investigation.

In her written statement Tuesday, Guyette disputed the finding that she received a positive test before going to work on June 9, attributing the confusion to an error she made when she initially announced the result. In the statement, Guyette said she actually received the positive test result on June 10.

Bartlett said Wednesday that Guyette first informed him of the positive result on June 10. A Leddy Group representative did not respond to a request for clarification on this discrepancy with the investigation’s findings.

Correspondence posted on the town’s website shows that after Guyette declined to resign, local and state officials began working to ensure Peterborough’s election procedures would not be affected by the investigation and its fallout. Scanlan met with Guyette, Runyon and Leishman on Sept. 17 to address the alleged dysfunction in Guyette’s office, according to Runyon’s letter to Scanlan the following day.

In his Oct. 2 letter to Scanlan, Ward said 1,400 absentee ballots had been sent to voters and that Guyette said she was satisfied with the process. Since the Sept. 25 meeting among local officials, he added, absentee ballot processing has continued “without delay” and select board members, town staff and volunteers have offered to help Guyette with her responsibilities.

“[I]t is our highest priority to ensure that all measures are taken to support the Town Clerk in whatever she needs to provide a successful election for our citizens,” Ward wrote.

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ConVal sues tent firm over permitting issues
  • Updated

PETERBOROUGH — The ConVal Regional School District is suing a local tent vendor for $220,000 in damages, claiming it was responsible for permitting failures that derailed in-person learning plans at several schools.

ConVal contracted with the company, Monadnock Tent & Event in Greenfield, to rent 85 commercial tents from the first day of school on Sept. 8 to Oct. 31, according to records filed with the lawsuit.

Of those, 65 tents were large enough to need town permits, according to the lawsuit. But ConVal alleges the company failed to provide the required documentation for all but two of those tents, preventing them from getting permits and being used.

An inspection from the town of Peterborough noted deficiencies in how the two properly documented tents were installed, meaning they too could not be used, the lawsuit claims.

The school district said it made “numerous requests” for the documents, to no avail.

“Defendant has provided none of the required documentation, or any other acceptable documentation for any tent, other than the two Aztec tents which were unable to pass inspection,” the lawsuit states. “Defendant never remedied the deficiencies in the two Aztec tents.”

The tents were a key part of ConVal’s reopening plan, which involved turning them into outdoor classrooms for safer in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, most students in grades 7 through 12 started remotely because of the tent-permitting issues.

As a workaround, ConVal had to purchase many smaller tents that would not require permitting, rewire the electrical systems it had already set up and reorganize students into smaller classes to fit into the smaller spaces, according to the lawsuit.

ConVal says it returned to its full reopening plan as of this week.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the northern district of Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester, according to the school district, which announced the move in a news release late that afternoon.

“This failure resulted in significant disruptions to the start of the school year, putting an increased burden on our staff, students, and their families during an already challenging time,” ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders said in the news release. “After a good faith effort on our part to resolve this issue, this step is a last resort for the district as we work to recoup the taxpayer funding that went toward tents that we were ultimately unable to use.”

Representatives of Monadnock Tent & Event did not immediately respond to an email or a phone message after business hours Wednesday. A reporter who called a phone number listed on the company’s website was told he had the wrong number. The number is also listed on a contract addendum as belonging to company owner, John Hopkins.

A lawyer representing the company, Silas Little, also did not immediately respond to an email Wednesday evening. In a letter last month to the district, he denied that Monadnock Tent & Event had breached the contract.

ConVal covers Antrim, Bennington, Dublin, Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon and Temple.

ConVal’s lawsuit says it signed a contract Aug. 11, and the company began setting the tents up the next day. According to a copy of the contract filed in court, ConVal agreed to pay about $456,000 in all, half as an up-front deposit.

The school district now claims it is owed much of that $228,490 back, in addition to compensation for the costs of setting up other tents after the permitting issues.

The lawsuit alleges breach of contract and violation of the state’s Consumer Protection Act, among other claims.

In its lawsuit, ConVal described a series of meetings and communications with Monadnock Tent & Event and Peterborough officials in August and September.

After meeting with town officials in August, ConVal asked the company to submit the required engineering documents, according to the lawsuit. The district said it then applied for permits Sept. 1, but Monadnock Tent & Event could not provide the supporting documents except for two tents that were installed later.

When the town inspected the two tents, it found that staking and tie-downs were not installed at the right locations and the tie-downs did not meet the minimum strength needed, according to a Sept. 16 letter of deficiency signed by Tim Herlihy, Peterborough’s building official.

In early September, ConVal also hired an independent engineering firm, which concluded that the tents would fail inspections even if the necessary documents were provided, according to the lawsuit.

“Having received no cooperation from Defendant — either to provide the required documents or to remedy the deficiencies in the installed tents incapable of passing Town inspection — and already facing a significant and irreparable delay in the start of school, ConVal was forced to buy a number of 20x20 foot tents (which fall under the 400-square-foot minimum required for permitting) to be used as outdoor classrooms,” the lawsuit says.

Attorneys for ConVal eventually sent a letter telling the company to remove the unusable tents so new ones could take their place. The Sept. 25 letter said the school district would agree to continue renting the smaller 20-by-20 tents at the agreed-upon price of $44,800 but demanded a refund of $183,690 for the rest and said the school district would seek to recoup its other costs.

ConVal’s lawsuit says Monadnock Tent & Event removed the tents but did not provide a refund.

In a Sept. 24 letter, Little, an attorney representing the company, rebuffed the district’s claims.

“[ConVal] is attempting to change the terms of the contract after the contract has been executed and is seeking to avoid the responsibilities [ConVal] has under the terms of the written agreement,” Little wrote, arguing that the contract indemnifies the company against lawsuits and makes the school district responsible for obtaining permits. (It also says the company “will provide any required documents.”)

Little demanded ConVal pay the balance due under the contract.

In its news release Wednesday, ConVal said seventh- and eighth-grade students at South Meadow School in Peterborough began in-person classes Monday. Some ConVal High School students — who were divided into two cohorts to attend on alternating weeks — also returned.

“In-person learning was scheduled to have begun for those students on Sept. 8,” ConVal said in the release.

Students at Great Brook School in Antrim, which was also affected, had returned previously, according to Rizzo Saunders.

Great Brook was able to bring in-person students back sooner because they were able to combine the 20-by-20 foot tents with indoor space, while having safety and mitigation protocols in place, according to a district spokeswoman.