Chairman Carolyn Sundquist today announced that the selectmen will no longer allow questions from reporters during their meetings. This is a reversal of their previous policy. Elissa Paquette, the reporter for the Granite State News, has been allowed by the selectmen to ask questions during meetings. On June 20, 2016, Sundquist stated that Paquette was allowed to ask questions because she was “the reporter.” The change in policy is a direct result of a letter I wrote to the selectmen last week informing them that I am a reporter and that I would be asking questions during the meetings just as Paquette did.
Sundquist made the announcement toward the end of today’s meeting, after Paquette had already left. Paquette, however, made no attempt to ask questions while she was in attendance. It appears she might have been told of the new policy in advance.
Sundquist said that the decision was hers alone, and the three member board had not voted on the subject. When I asked her (during public comment at the end of the meeting) when she had made the decision, she reluctantly said that it was after receiving “feedback.” I asked who the feedback had come from, and she admitted that she had received legal advice from the selectmen’s counsel Rick Sager.
The logical conclusion is that Sager told Sundquist that if the selectmen allowed Paquette to ask questions during their meetings then they had to allow others to ask questions as well. In other words, the policy the selectmen have been following since March, which was to allow Paquette to ask questions but insist that everyone else wait until a period of public comment at the end of the meeting was, in fact, illegal. Had the selectmen continued to engage in viewpoint discrimination — allowing questions only from a friendly reporter — the town would have opened itself up to liability issues.
This is the second time this year that the selectmen have had to correct a policy after receiving legal advice from Rick Sager. Earlier this year the selectmen illegally paid Cory Hunter for groundwork in the town cemetery. Only the cemetery trustees, by law, can authorize such a payment. The selectmen knew this at the time, because Sue Weeks, the chairman of the trustees of the cemetery trust funds, had informed them before they voted to pay Hunter. The selectmen had been illegally managing the cemeteries, by their own admission, for years. After consulting with Sager, the selectmen publicly revised their relationship with the cemetery trustees.
Sundquist’s decision to shut down questions during meetings reflects her broader antipathy toward public involvement in town government. On May 24th, 2016, she stated, “What would the public say that would change our minds on a vote? I can’t imagine what they would say.”