More than a dozen state troopers were on hand at Wednesday’s Executive Council meeting, and nine people were arrested. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)
The Executive Council’s Republican majority voted down $27 million in federal money for vaccine outreach Wednesday – some for reasons unrelated to the contracts – pleasing dozens of protesters in the room and angering Gov. Chris Sununu enough that he called one councilor’s rationale “un-American.”
And while a heavy police presence kept more than 100 anti-vaccine mandate protesters from shutting down the meeting as they did two weeks ago, nine people were arrested and escorted out of the room for outbursts during the meeting.
The two contracts would have paid for temporary staff for the state’s vaccination program to reach homebound residents and other vulnerable populations who haven’t been vaccinated yet or need booster shots. Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said the money was critical to not only getting more people vaccinated but also alleviating the burden on primary care providers who are providing vaccinations in addition to non-COVID-19 care.
The council has approved similar contracts in the past; this one ran into trouble when RebuildNH, a group opposed to vaccine mandates and skeptical of the vaccine’s efficacy, told its followers the contracts’ fine print would require the state to comply with all current and future federal COVID-19 orders, including vaccine mandates.
The majority of councilors were not persuaded by Attorney General John Formella’s legal conclusion otherwise or by reminders from Sununu that they voted for prior contracts with the same language. Other complaints went beyond the contracts’ language and purpose.
Councilor David Wheeler cited objections to the state’s new vaccine registry and Councilor Joe Kenney opposes private employers’ vaccine mandates, neither of which are part of the two contracts. Sununu said he’d be open to Wheeler’s request that the Legislature change the registry from opt-out to opt-in; at a press conference later Wednesday, the governor reiterated that position but said he would veto any legislation to scrap the new registry.
But Kenney’s reasoning in particular irritated him. The state, he said, has no business overriding decisions of private employers.
“That is being socialist. That is completely un-American,” Sununu told him. When Kenney pressed his point, Sununu didn’t hide his frustration. “That’s not even socialism. That is pure communism.”
He added, “I appreciate you have reservations, but they are based on fantasy.”
Democratic Councilor Cinde Warmington, the lone vote for the contracts, was equally direct, telling fellow councillors they were voting with the “small misinformed minority,” not Granite Staters.
“A vote against this funding is guided by politics and not by the public health of the people of our state,” she said. “More than 70 percent of our people have been vaccinated. They want to be vaccinated, and we are going to take that away. The irony of councilors at this table arguing the federal government should tell private business what to do is irreconcilable.”
Councilors Ted Gatsas and Janet Stevens said they believed the state has already received generous funding for its vaccination outreach and could find additional money elsewhere or in future contracts. Prior to her vote, Stevens read a lengthy statement citing the “fear and disinformation” surrounding the contracts and supported the state’s vaccination goals. “I’m confident we can accomplish those goals without using the $27 million at this time,” she said.
The protesters, who turned their backs on the council when Sununu and Warmington voiced support for the contracts, cheered.
The nine people arrested inside the meeting were each charged with disorderly conduct, according to a press release from the Department of Safety Wednesday afternoon. Two of the nine received an additional charge for resisting arrest. The arrested demonstrators ranged in age from 26 to 70.
Devon Dukelow of New Boston was among those who gathered outside the meeting, held at the Police Standards and Training building in Concord, to urge councilors to vote the contracts down. He said he is anti-vaccine mandate, not anti-vaccine, and does not accept Formella’s interpretation of the contract.
Formella, he said, is Sununu’s lawyer, not the public’s lawyer. “(Elected officials) are here to serve the people and uphold the Constitution,” he said. “The Constitution is being run over by the government now.”
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