Executive Council meeting canceled over safety concerns

By: - September 29, 2021 1:20 pm
Two women stand outside of a brick building with a sign reading "King Sununu Who is Paying You"

Protesters stand outside of the Executive Council meeting at St. Anselm College on Wednesday. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story was updated Sept. 29, 2021 at 2:30 p.m. with a comment from House Speaker Sherman Packard. It was updated again at 5:30 p.m. with follow-up comments from Gov. Chris Sununu and a group that organized a protest outside the Executive Council meeting.

Citing concerns about the safety of state employees in the room, the Executive Council abruptly canceled its meeting Wednesday in the face of a loud, angry crowd determined to stop the state from accepting $27 million in federal vaccine aid. State police escorted state employees to their cars. 

At least two protesters shouted to councilors several times, “We know where you live.”

Gov. Chris Sununu and some councilors never emerged from a back room before Councilor David Wheeler announced the meeting was canceled nearly 45 minutes after it was to start. “State employees are fearful of their safety and have left the meeting,” Wheeler said. “We need the state employees to be able to answer questions on the agenda, and they are part of this meeting. Therefore, this meeting is canceled.”

Achieving their goal, the crowd cheered. “They should be afraid,” one man yelled. “They should be afraid.”

This is the second time this month state officials have canceled a meeting due to a mob protesting the COVID-19 vaccine, the new federal vaccine mandate, or both. The state Department of Health and Human Services postponed a public hearing on rule changes to the vaccine registry in early September. And at a rally two weeks ago, some of the same protesters turned against Republican lawmakers, accusing them of doing too little to stop a federal mandate. 

Sununu issued a statement following Wheeler’s announcement. “I will not put members of the Executive Council or state agencies in harm’s way,” it said. “State Police had to escort state employees to their cars after unacceptable, unruly behavior. This meeting is being postponed until our state employees can go before the council in a safe and orderly manner. The items on today’s agenda will be brought up at a later date.”

At a press conference later Wednesday, Sununu characterized the situation a bit differently, saying there were only one or two protesters who “crossed the line.” (While four people were the loudest Wednesday, dozens in the crowd chanted with them, calling for the meeting to be shut down.)

“There were just a few individuals there that were getting very aggressive and had a very open threats, and that’s just not going to be tolerated,” Sununu said. He emphasized several times the importance of keeping governmental proceedings open and public officials accessible while allowing residents to voice objections safely.

Referring to Executive Council meetings, which are open to the public but do include a public comment period, Sununu said, “It’s an amazing opportunity for people to really be part of the process, but it’s always understood that it’s done respectfully.” He added: “You might win the vote, you might lose the vote, but you always have to respect that process, and today was clearly something that diverged very aggressively from that. It’s just not going to be tolerated.”

Sununu said the council will revisit the contracts at its next meeting “in a location that we can ensure safety and security.” He declined to be more specific.

Democratic Councilor Cinde Warmington also issued a statement saying she will not be intimidated by the “un-American conduct” of the protesters, and she called on “every Granite Stater who believes in democracy” to speak out. 

“I am shocked that this insurrectionist behavior has come to New Hampshire,” she said. “It is not only disruptive, it is dangerous. Today’s meeting of the Governor and Executive Council was canceled because a far-right fringe mob put the safety of our dedicated state employees at risk. The actions of these extremists, guided by conspiracy theories and misinformation, not only disrupted state government but was an assault on our democracy.” 

The other four councilors could not be immediately reached. 

Monday afternoon, House Speaker Sherman Packard, a Londonderry Republican, issued a statement condemning the protesters’ actions.

“Our Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, but disruption of government meetings, and threats to government officials, is absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “The events we witnessed today were disgraceful and contrary to civil public discourse. Gov. Sununu and the Executive Council members did the right thing by putting people’s safety first.”

Reopen NH, an organized group against the vaccine, mandates, and masks, called on supporters to protest outside the meeting, held at the Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. Following the meeting, the group posted in its online group: “Executive Council meeting update: The state employees, whose input was apparently needed in terms of comment on the contracts, orchestrated a walk out. Meeting canceled. Next steps coming soon.”

Later in the day, the group issued a statement criticizing the protesters who disrupted the meeting. “Unfortunately, a handful of individuals not connected to our organization led some of the protesters inside the meeting room and disrupted councilors as they attempted to attend to the people’s business,” the statement said. “Despite efforts to direct public discourse by way of letters, emails, and peaceful demonstrations outside the building, these agitators were able to feed off people’s raw emotion and misdirect them.”

Reopen NH, however, was also behind the protest that grew so loud and unruly in early September that it prompted the Department of Health and Human Services to cancel its public hearing on rule changes to vaccine registry.

State police talk to a protester
State Police speak to a protester on Wednesday. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

At issue were two contracts that would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to accept $27 million in federal aid to create 13 new temporary positions aimed at increasing the state’s vaccination rate. The council voted, 4-1, to table the contracts at its last meeting, citing a need for more information. Three days later, the state Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee, which also must approve the contracts, did the same. At that meeting, Rep. Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican and the committee chairman, voiced disproven claims that the vaccine is ineffective and that most people hospitalized with COVID-19 have been vaccinated. 

Anticipating a crowd at Wednesday’s meeting, the state arranged to have state and local police, as well as campus security. They largely did not engage with the protesters, try to quiet them, or ask them to leave. But they watched closely from inside and outside the meeting. 

Opponents voiced the same arguments and unproven claims they’ve voiced for several months, alleging the vaccine and masks are harmful. They likened the state’s shutdowns early in the pandemic to a “concentration camp” and said medical staff who support the vaccine are members of the Third Reich.

“You want to make me wear a mask? Come try,” yelled one protester. “You want to force me to take a mask? Good luck. It will take 10-plus officers to muzzle me. I will die on my feet before I beg for federal funding.”

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. Email: [email protected]