One of the most basic facets of our particular republic is the famous concept that our government is “of the People, by the People, and for the People.” The line is best known from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, though it predates that speech. The notion is that the will of the people is the backbone of democracy.
So is their participation. Not simply through voting, though that right and responsibility is vital indeed. And not only through serving in government, though electing our fellow citizens to lead and serve us is another democratic bedrock.
Everyday citizens also contribute by showing up, being heard, and weighing in on issues before the government. We’ve long known that government operates best when it operates under the public eye. New Hampshire’s Constitution has this built into the system, calling for openness of both records and meetings of elected officials.
The coronavirus pandemic has made this more challenging in many ways. Even so, almost every board, committee, commission and other public panel has tried its best to see that the public continues to have access to meetings, hearing and forums.
Whether through Zoom or other remote meeting software, or by making physical conditions safer, officials all over the state have, for about a year now, gone out of their way to assist those who want to participate, but fear getting sick in doing so.
We say almost all such boards, because the Richmond selectboard appears to be an outlier. The three members have continued meeting in person, with no remote access for the public, and have refused to wear masks to assuage the pandemic fears of others.
The situation has been simmering for some time, and according to a report by The Sentinel’s Caleb Symons, it led to the resignation of one longtime town official, and another is considering doing so. As important, multiple members of the town’s zoning board have said they’ve simply stopped attending meetings due to the potential danger.
If board members are feeling it’s not worthwhile to attend these live meetings, we have to wonder how many members of the public are staying away as well. In a previous report, Town Administrator Susan Harrington told Symons multiple residents have requested an option to view remotely the meetings held in Richmond Town Hall.
The issue has even gone to the state attorney general, who ruled the board is not violating state law by meeting without masks. The board members say they are complying with the statewide mask mandate because they remain at least 6 feet apart, and keep any presenters at that distance as well.
In addition, two of the members claim they cannot wear masks due to health concerns — one of the vaguer loopholes in the state mandate — while the third, Chairman William Daniels, says he disagrees with the mandate and chooses not to wear a mask, but would do so if it made people more comfortable.
That’s the right attitude for a public official to take: Whether he agrees with the mandate or not, it’s his job to make people feel safe and welcome before his board. However, even if he dons a mask, the other members have made clear they feel exempt and will not. Since the board meets in what Harrington describes as “a skinny, narrow room,” and since it’s well known that coronavirus particles spread well in indoor, enclosed environments, Daniels’ offer is inadequate.
It’s also notable that those other elected town officials concerned about the members’ mask stance have felt endangered not at selectboard meetings, but their own, which the three selectmen often attend — maskless. Perhaps spurred by their actions, other officials in town have been doing the same.
Longtime planning board member Butch Morin, 70, resigned in November because of the dynamic. Two zoning board members say they’ve stopped attending meetings, and one said he may also resign.
Not every small town in the region is equipped/capable of holding meetings via Zoom or other programs. There is a cost involved, and a need for someone in attendance to know how to handle the tech. Moreover, there’s the question of the town’s Internet service, which could make that option a moot point.
If that’s not possible, there are additional steps the town can take — using Plexiglas shields to separate speakers and board members, for example. Taking temperatures as people enter meetings. Seeking larger spaces generally, with better ventilation. The latter will be a particular concern April 10 when the town holds its annual town meeting.
In short, it’s incumbent upon the town leaders to ensure everyone feels safe at their public meetings, regardless of how they themselves feel about the pandemic threat.