In wake of canceled meeting, Institute of Politics says it will no longer host public hearings

By: and - September 30, 2021 3:12 pm
Protesters stand outside of with anti-vaccine mandate signs

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

This story was updated Sept. 30, 2021, at 6 p.m. with information that Gov. Chris Sununu had canceled an event, citing concerns for ticket holders.

A day after Gov. Chris Sununu downplayed a raucous protest that shut down an Executive Council meeting Wednesday, Attorney General John Formella announced he’s investigating whether any protesters broke the law, and the academic institute that hosted the meeting said it will no longer hold public hearings. 

“After yesterday’s Executive Council meeting, I made the decision that we should not hold public hearings anymore if we are to consider the safety of our employees and our students,” said Neil Levesque, the executive director of the Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. An hour before the meeting began, Levesque said he had already started receiving threats directed against him personally. “The people I was dealing with yesterday … they are people interested in causing as much commotion, disruption, and potentially violence as possible,” he said. 

And the same day Sununu downplayed the protest, he told ticket holders he was  cancelling his 603 Tour event in Walpole Sunday, citing safety concerns for attendees.

“As governor my first responsibility is to ensure the safety of Granite Staters and unfortunately, due to the behavior demonstrated by protesters today and the likelihood of their disruption of Sunday’s festivities, I must unfortunately cancel this Sunday’s HarvestFest to ensure the safety of you and your family” he wrote. “I regret that we will not be able to gather this weekend, but I know it is the right decision to make.”

At issue at the center of Wednesday’s protest were federal contracts worth $27 million the state Department of Health and Human Services has said are key to reaching the 40 percent of eligible Granite Staters who remain unvaccinated. 

The council tabled the contracts two weeks ago following heavy lobbying by opponents of both the COVID-19 vaccine and a new federal vaccine mandate. The Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee, which also must approve the contracts, did the same a few days later, and announced Wednesday afternoon that it had canceled its Friday meeting, where the contracts were the only agenda item needing a vote. But not for safety reasons, House leadership said.

Committee Chairman Rep. Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican, said the Department of Health and Human Services failed to provide the committee information about the contracts that it had requested. 

“This is a $27 million program,” Weyler said. “It looks like a major project. There ought to be some kind of outline of what they plan to do. We want to have some idea of what is planned.”

Weyler said he intends to ask for the information again with hopes it will be provided before the committee’s next meeting on Oct. 22. The contracts need the approval of both the council and the committee.

Jake Leon, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, did not return a message. 

Sununu remained in a back room during the protest at Wednesday’s meeting, where people shouted to councilors “we know where you live,” chanted “shut it down,” and held control of the room for 45 minutes. Sununu said state employees had to be escorted to their cars by law enforcement for their safety. 

But at a press conference a few hours later, Sununu downplayed the incident as a “few people” who crossed the line. When asked if he was troubled that the disruption of a public meeting was an indication of where things are headed, Sununu said, “I wouldn’t say it’s troubling, but obviously it’s very unfortunate.” Later, he said there were “just a few individuals there that were getting very aggressive and had made very open threats and that’s, that’s just not going to be tolerated.”

Levesque saw it otherwise. He said the institute will no longer host public hearings that the Legislature presides over, citing a lack of control over the kinds of issues that led to safety concerns at Wednesday’s meeting.

At events put on by the institute – which will still be held – the power to set rules about how the event is conducted, like requiring attendees to wear masks and prohibiting people from coming with signs or yelling and using profanity, is retained. Not so at public hearings, Levesque said, where it’s up to the Legislature to determine how issues with conduct will be handled.

“I don’t want to deal with that anymore,” Levesque said. 

“These weren’t really protesters,” he said of the people disrupting Wednesday’s meeting. “These were people intent on stopping the democratic process by any means necessary.”

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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.