By Laurie Ortalano, a Nashua resident and member of Right to Know NH.
Everyone knows that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives, at least temporarily. This includes how we, the public, participate in local politics. With the pandemic-induced changes to how local politics works, I am a little concerned about the health of public participation during these unusual times. Let’s take a look at why I believe our voices are not being heard as well now.
Ordinarily, we can all participate in any public meeting by simply attending. In most cases, signing in and standing to address a board during community input is standard practice. And in our open, democratic society, our words become part of the public record.
Since the closing of Nashua City Hall to the public two months ago, how does public input work now? The Nashua Board of Aldermen voted to only accept, not read, emails and placed them on file for all remote meetings. The Board’s pandemic position to acknowledge the email is a far cry from physical participation in a public meeting where press coverage and media viewership brings light to citizen comments.
The Board has adopted an even more interesting practice. A citizen’s email communication for public input must be receive one week prior to the Board meeting, otherwise it is tabled until the next meeting, two weeks down the road. So, the public can never have a voice on items to be acted upon in a meeting because their comments are always submitted too late. At a minimum, the Board should be making these emails available in a much timelier manner.
The Boards new rules on public comment is a strong indication of how muted our voices have become in Nashua’s city government. Ordinarily, the Board would provide up to 30 minutes for public comment; they have been running freely without any “interference” from the public.
On the other hand, board committees or city managers have the ability to submit reports to the board and have them immediately recognized on record. Nashua’s Board of Aldermen President Lori Wilshire simply suspends the rule, if there is no objection of the Board, and accepts into record the correspondence submitted. The Board is using The Mason Rules for Legislative Procedure to muzzle the public, rather than to keep order so all voices can be heard.
Alderman Ernest Jette and Alderwoman Elizabeth Lu have questioned why public emails are not being recognized in meetings. They are silenced by other Aldermen who are trying to train them in “the Nashua Way”. Push the public off and stifle them.
From my vantage point, Nashua’s politicians are using the dictum “never let a good crisis go to waste” to exploit and advance their own political agendas. More so than ever, it is an important time for the public to keep a watchful eye.
Right To Know NH thanks Ms. Cady for her unrelenting advocacy for citizens’ rights across New Hampshire. Serving on the original NH Right to Know Commission, Ms. Cady is also co-founder of Right To Know NH, a non-partisan citizen advocacy organization focused on strengthening the Right To Know Law (RSA 91-A). In 2015, Ms. Cady was awarded the honorable distinction of Citizen of the Year by the New England First Amendment Coalition for 4 decades of activism. Ms. Cady previously served in the N.H. House of Representatives from 2002 to 2006.
Ms. Cady subscribes to the belief that elected NH officials are public servants who are in turn, always accountable to their constituents.