January 13, 2021BETHLEHEM — Bethlehem officials weighed options for the town's annual deliberative session at last week's Select Board meeting. At the suggestion of Town Moderator Mary Lou Krambeer, no decision was made that night.
"The election committee and elected officials have been thinking forward about what we are going to do. At this point, we have three options," noted Board Chair Gabe Boisseau.
Unlike Franconia officials, who considered five scenarios the previous week, Bethlehem's Select Board opted for three. The first would be to continue the status quo with an in-person deliberative session. The second option would be to take the process virtual, much like the weekly board meetings, but allow residents to vote in-person on March 9.
The final choice would be a postponement. Though no hard date was proposed, Boisseau said, "sometime before September, when we feel comfortable."
According to Krambeer, guidance from the NH Municipal Association is heavily restricted by existing COVID-19 election legislation. House Bill 1129, issued by the state legislature last July, outlined optional town meeting procedures and provided details for a drive-by warrant article voting process.
Krambeer said that if town officials chose a digital platform, the deliberative session must occur in two phases, with the first meeting being strictly informational. A second virtual session must occur within seven days of the first, and postcards would need to be mailed to all registered voters, she added. Voters would only be allowed to deliberate during the second session.
Should town officials choose postponement, a rescheduled deliberative session would be restricted to the second Tuesday of April, May, June or July.
Krambeer said, "If we wait for option three, many more people will be vaccinated and we could do the regular deliberative meeting and one, and then do regular voting. But I hesitate to decide tonight because I feel like we don't have quite enough information."
Boisseau noted that there were a significant amount of logistical challenges to a virtual deliberative session.
He stated, "If we held an in-person meeting, it could potentially exclude people who are not able to attend and do not feel comfortable attending. If we did go with that option, we should make it a hybrid meeting."
In a hybrid scenario, town officials would need to establish an effective method for both virtual and in-person vote collection. Vice-Chair Linda Moore noted that it would be too complicated of a process.
"In Bethlehem, we have really good community engagement on these things, and I would hate to lose that. I am not a fan of that option," stated Moore.
In years past, the town's deliberative session was held in the Profile School gymnasium. Krambeer said the space allowed for more successful social distancing than the Town Hall.
Board member Bruce Caplain said, "We should probably not have a deliberative session in-person in February. Realistically, I don't know that it would happen in April or even May. June would be a best-case scenario, given that the vaccine hasn't started to roll out to the general public."
According to HB 1129, if town officials choose a virtual meeting, they must notify voters at least seven days before the first session on Feb. 1. Given the narrow timelines, Board member Mary Moritz said the best option was a postponement.
"It's reasonable to assume that the numbers will go down, and it would be safer to have the meeting in June. I think it would be better for the school, given the kids will be out of school, and it wouldn't be another major thing during the end of the academic year," stated Moritz.
Krambeer said she would gather more information from the Secretary of State and the Municipal Association. Town officials expected to revisit the subject at this week's meeting.