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Court order postpones Moultonborough Town Meeting

June 27, 2020
MOULTONBOROUGH — Town meeting was postponed after Carroll County court granted a temporary restraining order against the meeting from taking place on June 20 due to health and safety concerns about the proposed drive-in meeting.

After two previous cancellations because of the pandemic, town meeting was scheduled for this past Saturday at the Sandwich Fairgrounds, and would have been a drive-in meeting to maintain social distancing. Many residents and four members of the board of selectmen all spoke in favor of postponing the meeting, though town moderator Paul Punturieri insisted that the meeting go on as scheduled. The restraining order postponed the meeting, though it has been rescheduled for June 29.

The proposed meeting resulted in a hail of letters and calls to town officials from residents protesting the meeting and asking the town to postpone it. People had concerns about the hot weather conditions, especially for those who don't have air conditioning in their vehicles. There was also concern about possible exposure to COVID-19 in that large a group. Another major issue was exhaust from that many vehicles in one place creating health and environmental issues. All of these issues especially considered that many of the people there would be seniors.

During a logistics and information meeting on June 16, most members of the board of selectmen said they had a lot of the same concerns about holding this meeting. Town Moderator Paul Punturieri, who has the authority to hold the meeting, stood firm on having the meeting on Saturday.

Punturieri said this meeting format had already been used in Jaffrey with around 170 people in more than 100 vehicles attending the meeting, which lasted for around three hours, had three secret ballot votes, and ample debate over the adoption of SB2. He said that the meeting went off with no incidents.

Punturieri said no matter what time of the year they hold the meeting, whether in March, May, or June, it won't be a good time for someone. He said people could come prepared with water, ice packs, and anything else, and there would be medical personnel on the scene. He said if the weather does get too hot and people can't continue the meeting, it could be adjourned.

Punturieri also said Superintendent Patrick Andrew has indicated he wasn't comfortable with waiting on the school district meeting, and it would be going as scheduled on Saturday.

Selectman Kevin Quinlan asked about waiting until the passage of the amended version of HB 1129, which would give governing bodies more flexibility to appropriate their expenditures if they cannot hold a town or district meeting under the current emergency. Punturieri said he opposed this bill, saying it took authority away from the legislative body to debate and decide on different expenditures and would disenfranchise voters.

"I've got an awful lot of emails from folks concerned about the heat wave: 90-plus degrees sitting in cars for three hours," Quinlan said. "There's a big concern for folks and waiting to see what the action is on this."

The vote on this was scheduled for June 30. Quinlan said if this fails people would want to see if there are any executive orders by the governor. Puntureiri said he would be opposed to waiting for this because of the harm this could have to the voters.

Selectman Jean Beadle, however, supported holding the meeting on Saturday. She said if they wait after June 30, they would still have to wait seven days to change anything and that could push the meeting as far back as September.

"I think we go forward and do the best we can and make it work," Beadle said. "I mean, we're all of the age here, most every one of us is 70 or above 70. It's going to be hard on us sitting out there. We're not going to have an air conditioned car."

Board Chair Joel Mudgett said he understood that, but that there are a lot of people well over 70 who come to town meeting. Punturieri said there are also a lot of people much younger than 70 who come too, and he said he has heard from many of them asking not to postpone the meeting.

"You're going to disenfranchise the older voters," said Selectman Chuck McGee.

McGee said he understood a lot of work was done, but the hot conditions and potential for storms would make this not doable.

Selectman James Gray also opposed holding the meeting, saying there would be a lot of traffic congestion with the possibility of carbon monoxide in the air over what would likely be several hours.

"I'd be afraid to have young people, old people, anybody, in that circumstance for that many hours. That would be my vote," Gray said.

Punturieri said he was prepared to go forward with the meeting and said he didn't think it would be as bad as people thought it would be.

The board held a vote recommending that the town moderator postpone the meeting due to these concerns with four in favor with Beadle voting against. The decision to hold the meeting, however, was solely under the authority of the town moderator and Punturieri said he would hold the meeting as scheduled.

Two nights later, Town Administrator Walter Johnson read a number of emails from residents opposed to holding the town meeting on Saturday due to these health, safety, and environmental concerns. The selectmen also reiterated their votes regarding the recommendation postponing the meeting.

Resident Eric Taussig called in to the meeting and asked if the board would consider going to court to seek a cease and desist order against Punturieri to postpone the meeting. Mudgett said they don't know about that option and thought the town would be pushing its luck with this.

On Friday, Taussig, along with Marlene Taussig and other unnamed plaintiffs, filed a petition in Carroll County Superior Court against Punturieri, seeking an ex parte temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent holding the town meeting on June 20. The petition cited the potential health impacts of the meeting, namely potential spread of the coronavirus and the hot weather especially with many voters over the age of 70. The petition stated there were many people who did not have car air conditioning and could be endangered by spending that much time in that weather.

The petition also cited how many cars would be idling in one space for that amount of time, potentially violating Department of Environmental Services regulations that limit vehicle idling to no more than five minutes in any hour. Included was a letter from Tim White of the DES noting these concerns about vehicle idling and exhaust in the hot conditions.

Another issue was inadequate restroom facilities at the site with only a limited number of portable toilets available.

The petition mentioned how the legislature would be taking a vote on HB 1129 which would alleviate the need for a meeting at the fairgrounds and create a safer situation.

The court ordered the temporary restraining order. Judge Amy Ignatius granted the request for all the reasons on the petition, stating the court found there was "an immediate threat of irreparable harm, and no adequate remedy at law." A hearing was to be scheduled within 10 days.

Because of this order, town meeting was postponed from June 20. Punturieri rescheduled it for June 29 at Moultonborough Academy.

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