The Woodsville Fire District received a slap on the wrist last month for committing electioneering violations.
Jane Young, New Hampshire Deputy Attorney General, determined that Woodsville Fire District administrator Kevin Shelton committed two counts of unlawful electioneering when he sent out a letter in February asking district voters to support Select Board candidate Michael Graham and to oppose Article 2 at the annual Haverhill Town Meeting.
In a cease and desist letter dated March 26, Young states, “we have determined the letter you issued upon the Woodsville Fire District’s letterhead constitutes impermissible electioneering by a public employee.”
Young ordered Shelton to halt further electioneering efforts, and directed the fire district to submit a remediation plan to prevent additional violations.
Through the fire district’s legal counsel, Shelton said he was unaware of the electioneering law when he sent the letter, and now understands why he should not have sent it.
On April 6, Shelton submitted the Woodsville Fire District’s remediation plan to the Attorney General’s office.
Under the plan, a formal electioneering policy will be included in the employee handbook, the police will be explained to all district employees by April 30, and new hires will have the policy explained to them during orientation.
The policy states that “All employees of the Woodsville Fire District, to include Woodsville Water and light EMS, Fire Department and/or Highway are prohibited from electioneering as a public employee while in the performance of your official duties or and are also prohibited to use government property, including, but not limited to, telephones, facsimile machines, vehicles, and computers to electioneer.”
It continues “The definition of electioneering means to act in any way specifically designed to influence the vote of a voter on any question or office” and states that employees found in violation of the policy will be subject to discipline or dismissal.
The Woodsville Fire Precinct letter dated Feb. 26 was sent out a week-and-a-half before the town’s virtual town meeting.
It asked voters to support Graham, noting he “is a resident of the Woodsville Fire District, a businessman, and a former Selectman. He cares about unifying the Town of Haverhill. This is in contrast to Darwin Clogston, the current Select-Board member, and Chairman, who has stated publicly that his goal over the next three years is to do away with the Precinct form of Government,”
It also urged residents to “vote NO on article #2 at the Town Meeting.” It falsely promised that “Doing so will allow the community as a whole, to debate the articles and to be properly informed” and added that “The current format, although a legal option, leaves a lot to be desired and allows the Selectboard to amend final articles, without debate from the floor.”
It’s unclear if the Woodsville Fire Precinct letter played a part in the outcome. However, voters ultimately supported both of the letter’s recommendations.
Graham defeated Clogston in a runaway, 514-186.
Article 2 — to approve temporary optional town meeting procedures allowed by House Bill 1129 during the COVID-19 State of Emergency — failed 409-264. As a result, the entire 34-item ballot was invalidated and every request, including the proposed $4.6 million operating budget and over $59,000 for social service organizations, were scrapped.
In addition to advocating for Graham and against Article 2, the letter opposed the town’s creation of a single, Haverhill Fire department through the merging of three precinct fire departments: North Haverhill, Haverhill Corner and Woodsville.
This was not deemed electioneering by Young.
The letter said, “The Woodsville Fire District Commissioners do not support turning over the Fire Department[,] and the Woodsville Fire Department voted unanimously to not support turning over the Department to the Town,” and characterized the town’s plan to withhold funding unless precincts opt-in as “extortion.”
Woodsville is the lone holdout to the plan. Its voters rejected the proposal at this year’s annual precinct meeting. Because Haverhill is only funding the town department, precinct taxpayers will bear the full cost of Woodsville Fire operations in 2021.