Lawmakers take on the next remote access political debate: local government
Supporters of the remote access bill said it would allow local governments to hold remote meetings only if they desired to and had capacity. (Matt Cardy | Getty Images)
The political fight over whether to allow remote participation in New Hampshire State House business has migrated to cities and towns.
Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation to allow public bodies to hold meetings remotely and still be in compliance with the state’s open records law.
Under House Bill 1014, New Hampshire’s “right-to-know law,” RSA 91-A, would be updated to state that “a physical location is not required for any meeting.” Instead, the bill states, meetings could be held remotely if the body provided access by telephone. Additional access could also be provided by video or other electronic means, the bill adds.
Rep. Alexis Simpson, an Exeter Democrat, said the bill came at the request of cities and towns, many of which expanded remote meeting technology during COVID-19. During the first year of the pandemic, local governments were allowed to meet remotely under an emergency order issued by Gov. Chris Sununu that provided an exemption to the right-to-know law. With the expiration of the state of emergency in June, local governing bodies have lost that ability.
“Those who have disabilities, those who have young children, elderly citizens, and those who can’t drive at night or in the snow have all shared with me how important remote access is to them,” Simpson said.
But the bill has already drawn criticism from prominent House Republicans, echoing the party’s long-held opposition to remote participation in full House voting sessions and legislative committees.
Republican lawmakers argued Thursday that empowering towns to make their meetings remote could exclude residents who didn’t have adequate technology to participate.
“If you get a nice laptop, and a good connection, all of this probably seems really easy,” said Rep. Steven Smith, the deputy House speaker and a Charlestown Republican. “I know people that don’t have that, that live in rural areas that use Tracfones where they pay for every minute. …Please do not allow any public body in New Hampshire to create a situation where somebody can literally be forced to pay money to participate in a public meeting. That is offensive.”
Others, like Rep. Mike Sylvia, argued the bill could encourage public officials to text each other under their desks when meeting remotely – in potential violation of the right-to-know law. Sylvia has expressed opposition to remote meeting in the past; in 2020, the Belmont Republican led an effort by the Belmont county legislative delegation to defy a mask mandate issued by Gov. Chris Sununu and hold in-person meetings without remote access.
Another Republican, Rep. Jess Edwards of Auburn, argued that allowing towns to provide virtual participation would deprive residents of key forms of communication between officials and their constituents. And he said that it could incentivize select boards to avoid accountability by scheduling remote meetings any time they took up something controversial.
“Perhaps someday, when the metaverse is fully mature, and we can all put on the suits and the virtual reality kicks in and we can see everybody, you know, maybe the technology will be good enough at that point to conduct routinely our public meetings virtually,” he said.
Supporters rejected those criticisms, noting that the bill would allow local governments to hold remote meetings only if they desired to and had capacity. Jake Berry, vice president of policy for the advocacy group New Futures, said remote access had helped more residents access meetings than it had hindered.
“I think that many individuals who are least able to afford the technology to be able to Zoom into meetings or participate virtually are likely those who are least able to get to Concord to attend meetings as well,” Berry said.
The bill has been supported by the New Hampshire Municipal Association. On Thursday, Tom Mullins, city attorney for Keene, spoke to the effort Keene had made to set up a toll-free 1-800 phone line to allow low-income residents to participate in its meetings virtually.
“We talk about transparency: I think we had far more transparency in a lot of ways when we did this during the pandemic,” Mullins said.
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