by George Koch III
HAMPTON FALLS — After running afoul of state electioneering regulations, school officials are taking steps to ensure the problem doesn’t occur again.
During this election season, the state attorney general’s office received complaints from local citizens concerning letters sent to residents by Hampton Falls Principal Mark Deblois and school nurse Whitney Nowak in regard to election issues. After investigating the complaints, Assistant Attorney General Brian Buonamano determined the letters, which sought to influence voters in the March town and school district elections, violated a state law, RSA 659:44-a, that relates to electioneering by public employees.
According to the cease and desist orders issued to Deblois and Nowak sent by Buonamano, the problem with their correspondence was the manner in which both were generated. After speaking with both Deblois and Nowak, Buonamano learned the letters were sent in their capacity as school employees while using school property.
According to RSA 659:44-a, public employees cannot engage in electioneering – the promotion of specific candidates or ballot questions – while performing their duties or using government property.
After contacting Nowak, Buonamano learned she’d sent out an email in support of a particular candidate during school hours on a school computer, which violated the statute.
Deblois’ letter, which discussed the warrant articles on the Hampton Falls School District warrant, was emailed out to parents in the district using the SAU’s email list.
In a recent interview, Deblois said, his letter was his take on the warrant questions and the School Board’s position on each. That included a discussion of the benefits of passing the $7.3 million bond request for the expansion of the Lincoln Akerman’s School, an issue that’s failed several times previously and failed again at the polls this March.
Deblois said after speaking with Buonamano, he now understands the line he crossed by using the school’s email list to get his letter to parents.
“I’ve sent out letters before, and I never realized I was violating the RSA; I would never have done it if I knew,” Deblois said. “After it was explained to me, I understand, and I would never violate the statute again.”
Deblois and Nowak aren’t the only two public employees Buonamano investigated this year after taking over the AG’s Civil Bureau.
“We see a fair number of complaints in the run up to local elections,” Buonamano said. “And we’ve made an effort to be as responsive as we can.”
For example, in this region alone, he sent out cease and desist orders to officials in Newton and Newmarket, two communities that also had bond questions on their ballots.
In Newmarket, Buonamano said, the violation again consisted of school officials supporting a warrant question.
“In Newmarket, there was a whole website dedicated to electioneering in support of a bond issue for a school expansion. It was linked to the school’s website,” he said. “Six different videos were posted by school staff on things like crowding in the corridors. When I sent out the cease and desist order they took it down immediately. If you’re a public employee, you can’t use public property to weigh in on these debates.”
Buonamano said his goal in issuing electioneering cease and desist orders is to educate the public employees involved in hopes that such problems won’t arise again.
SAU 21 Superintendent Robert Sullivan is also following up in that regard, he said. After learning of the Hampton Falls incident, he plans to educate school officials in the SAU so there are no further infractions of the state’s electioneering statute. He wants officials to know what is and isn’t allowed.
According to Buonamano’s letter that’s important. After a public employee receives one cease and desist order on electioneering, further violations by the same individuals could result in the AG’s office taking further action.
“Please be advised,” Buonamano wrote, “that violations of RSA 659:44-a are criminal misdemeanors.”
But Buonamano said, from what he’s seen, he doesn’t believe those involved are acting in a purposeful criminal manner.
“I don’t think anyone’s trying to do anything wrong,” Buonamano said. “I think everyone’s trying to do what they think is right for the kids, and they want to communicate what’s needed in their schools.”
But, that has to be accomplished within the rule of law, he added.
Copies of these cease and desist letters are below. I will add that while it is refreshing to see Principal Mark Deblois and Superintendent Dr. Sullivan take responsibility, the issue of electioneering would seem to be fairly widely understood given that the town has had several past allegations of this including the 2016 election. Principal Deblois was principal of LAS at that time on an issue involving email distribution lists and matters pertaining to elections by public officials.
Additionally as members of the Hampton Falls community, until this information was provided to the Hampton Union back in July, documents that were obtained from SAU21 show that this matter was being addressed in May of 2017. Since then the District, the School Board and the LAS Administration have not provided any information to identify these violations to the Hampton Falls community prior to this article being published.
I have had discussions with Superintendant Dr. Sullivan and will be following up on this matter to understand what additional measures are being taken to ensure that proper records are being maintained to ensure compliance with RSA 91-A as well as what additional training and enforcement will be brought to bear to ensure compliance with all election-related laws in the State of New Hampshire as not knowing is not good enough.