Opponents of $22.5 million vaccine contract blast ‘underhanded’ Executive Council vote

By: - November 12, 2021 5:56 am
Sununu at podium

Construction is several months away, according to the governor’s office. (Courtesy)

The vaccine and mandate protesters who took credit last month when the Executive Council’s Republicans rejected a $22.5 million federal vaccine contract were surprised and unhappy to learn on Twitter Wednesday that most of those Republicans had reversed themselves. And not only because their victory was short-lived.

The contract wasn’t on the public agenda or the council’s website until several hours after the meeting, giving them no chance to be there and again voice their objections face-to-face. 

“I’m mad about the contract,” said J.R. Hoell, treasurer of Rebuild NH, the grassroots group that has led the challenge. “I’m extremely angry about the underhanded way this was brought up.”

This contract has so upset vaccine and mandate opponents that they prevented a vote on it in September by protesting until the meeting was abruptly canceled. More than 100 packed the room at the second meeting, and nine were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. 

Following that meeting, Gov. Chris Sununu, who supports the contract, called it unfortunate that a few protesters had interrupted the government’s work, but he said that’s a risk when government is kept open for public participation.

“We pride ourselves on transparency and openness,” he said then. “The Executive Council is a hallmark of that system.”

Sununu decides what goes on the council’s agenda. The $22.5 million contract was added as a “late item,” meaning it came in after the agenda had been written. In these cases, late items are posted on the council’s website alongside the agenda. But that was not done in this case until after the meeting.

State offices were closed Thursday for Veterans Day, and Sununu’s spokesman could not be reached. Sununu condemned the council’s rejection of the contract last month.

The contract, which would add 13 temporary employees to support the rollout and tracking of vaccines, heads next to the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee, which must also approve it before Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette can spend the money. 

Committee members questioned the contract when it came before them in September and tabled it without taking a vote. When they take it up again, which could be as early as their Nov. 19 meeting, they can expect to hear complaints not only about the contract’s purpose but also what its opponents see as the governor and council’s less-than-transparent way of reviving it. 

“We’re sending emails to them right now. What we do beyond that has still not been decided,” said Hoell, who delivered a petition signed by nearly 2,300 people opposing the federal vaccine money to committee members at their last meeting. Asked whether Rebuild NH will turn out a crowd at the committee’s meeting, Hoell said, “There is a real possibility because of the underhandedness.”

Terese Grinnell, a nurse who has been among the most vocal opponents of vaccines, mandates, and the contracts, was one of the nine arrested. According to her arrest documents, she is accused of saying “Amen” and “We’re being arrested?” after being told that continued verbal disruptions would result in arrest.

She is scheduled to be in court the day of the fiscal committee’s vote but has instructed her supporters to leave the courthouse in time to get to the meeting. “Everyone is so righteously angry right now,” she said. “I think it would be political suicide for the fiscal committee if they vote yes.”

Opponents’ grievances will get a mixed reception. 

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, said he will vote for the contract and isn’t concerned about the way it made it through the council. “These people had their opportunities to be heard,” he said. He added: “People’s lives are at stake. That’s the issue here.”

But Sen. Bob Giuda, a Warren Republican, is sympathetic to complaints about both the contract and its passage. 

Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, a Nashua Democrat, said she is a definite yes on the contract.

“With the lowest rate of vaccination in New England and an 84 percent rise in cases in the past two weeks, it is urgent that Gov. Sununu step up to the plate and be a leader,” she said. “Our economic and public health and well-being demand action, not platitudes and empty words. I certainly hope he will direct DHHS to bring this funding request back to the fiscal committee next week so we can do our job and accept the return of our tax dollars – just as every other state has already done.”

Giuda doesn’t support putting more money into promoting the vaccine because he believes vaccines are widely available and every adult who wants to be vaccinated or have their children vaccinated can easily do so. The manner in which the contract passed is also a concern, he said, especially given the volatile nature of the public debate and the recent arrests. After watching taped recordings of the meeting, he doesn’t believe the arrests were justified. 

“This was, in my opinion, a political sleight of hand,” Giuda said of the council vote. “We don’t serve to rule.”

Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican and committee member, had received more than 100 emails with complaints about the vote by midday Thursday. “People should be outraged,” he said. “We have a constitutional obligation in New Hampshire to have a full and transparent government. And we do that by public disclosure of important votes. And we know that the vote on this is a vote that has a lot of interest. Even if it were an issue of no interest, we still have the same duty.”

When Sununu brought the contract forward at Wednesday’s meeting, he noted that Councilor Joe Kenney had asked that his nonbinding resolution protecting the state’s interests be added. Kenney said Thursday his primary goal was to put on record his and other councilors’ concerns that language within the contract could be read to say the state would have to agree to all COVID-19 federal orders – including those related to quarantine and social isolation – if it accepted the money. (Attorney General John Formella told the council at its prior meeting that was a misinterpretation of the language.) 

“I wanted language that (said) if the federal government imposed isolation and quarantine mandates onto the citizens of New Hampshire, that we would simply give the money back and say, ‘Keep your hands off New Hampshire,’” he said.

Councilors Janet Stevens and David Wheeler joined Kenney in reversing their vote and supporting the contract, along with Councilor Cinde Warmington. She has supported the contract from the start and called Kenney’s nonbinding resolution legally meaningless and political cover. Councilor Ted Gatsas, a Manchester Republican, abstained without saying why.

Asked about the way in which the contract was brought back for a second vote, Kenney said the council has taken up many federal contracts related to the vaccine and the public can expect it to continue to do so. Contract opponents “have the ability to come to every council meeting to express concerns about any and all contracts,” he said.

The suggestion does not sit well with Andrew Manuse, chairman of Rebuild NH.

“I’m disgusted,” he said. “Those of us who have jobs, families, and other business to attend to in our lives can’t be watching the people we elect like a hawk every waking minute. You would think that we could trust them to not flip-flop on something this important. These two-faced back-stabbers are going to have to answer to what they’ve done at some point, whether at the ballot box or when they face God.”

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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]