The Bulletin Board

Proposed legislation would change when towns can set public health regulations

By: - January 20, 2023 1:29 pm

Rep. Rep. Juliet Harvey-Bolia, a Tilton Republican, has introduced legislation that would require new public health regulations to be passed by voters at the annual town meeting instead of selectmen. (Screenshot)

A bill before lawmakers could delay towns’ ability to set public health regulations, according to the New Hampshire Health Officers Association. 

Under current law, select boards must provide notice of a public health officer’s proposed regulation and vote on it at a public board meeting. In most towns, those meetings are held every other week. 

Under House Bill 154, proposed public health regulations could be approved only at the annual town meeting or at a special town meeting, which must be requested by residents through a petition process. 

Wayne Whitford, president of the New Hampshire Health Officers Association, told the House Municipal and County Government Committee this week that current law allows town officials to address public health concerns quickly. 

Whitford told the committee that selectmen allow the public to address proposed regulation changes at the meeting, before taking a vote.

“We see that working very well right now,” he told the House Municipal and County Government Committee this week. “We do not see the need for an extra step, of bringing it to the town meeting, which may be up to a year away from the time of that actual proposal. It just adds time and administrative work to the local communities.”

The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Juliet Harvey-Bolia, a Tilton Republican, disputed that. She said the law change is necessary because current law does not explicitly require selectmen to take public comment before voting on a new public health regulation.

Harvey-Bolia likened the process laid out in current law to a select board’s vote on a routine invoice.

“There’s no requirement for (proposed regulations) to be discussed, deliberated upon in a public meeting,” she told the committee. “I find this woefully inadequate. I think we’d all agree that public hearings are the bare minimum for the passing of ordinances. They can affect everyone in town.”

While the pandemic brought new attention to a public health officer’s role in enforcing laws addressing communicable diseases, their responsibilities also include addressing sanitation in child care and school facilities and restaurants.

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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]