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AG Probes "Home Rule" Brochures

10/27/2000
on 10/27/00.

CONCORD -- The Attorney General's Office is reviewing voter information brochures on the proposed "home rule" constitutional amendment to see if they are biased political advertising.

The materials were produced by the New Hampshire Municipal Association.

Deputy Secretary of State Robert Ambrose said his office has referred to the Attorney General's Office questions about the placement of political material on public property -- that is, inside town halls.

Ann M. Larney, senior assistant attorney general in the Civil Division, said yesterday she plans to meet with Secretary of State William M. Gardner today to discuss the materials.

Linda Dianis, NHMA staff attorney, said the association styled the brochures after similar guides on constitutional amendments that the state gave voters in the past. The intent was to produce an unbiased informative guide for voters who want to understand the amendment, she said.

Under the home rule amendment, towns would have the right to pass ordinances and regulations, and use other powers not specifically denied them under state law or the Constitution in areas not already covered in a comprehensive state agency rules. The action could only be taken by local legislative bodies, primarily city councils or at town meetings.

In an Oct. 24 letter to member towns and cities, NHMA said it disagrees with the Secretary of State's questions.

"The pamphlet was specifically designed and written so that it could be placed in town and city halls, libraries and other public buildings -- and we urge you to do so," it said.

Dianis said her understanding is that the Secretary of State's office reviewed the NHMA brochure and cleared it. She was not sure who at NHMA or Gardner's office were involved in the review.

The only reason NHMA published the guide is that the Secretary of State's office didn't, she said.

Larney said that she wants to talk with Gardner before making a decision, but she's leaning against the brochure.

"It's close, but it appears to be a form of political advertising," she said.
As such, the brochures would have to be pulled from town clerk counters, town halls and other public property.

"I'm sure it was a good faith effort," she said, but noted state law prevents the posting of any materials on public property that, "expressly or implicitly advocate the success or defeat of any party, measure or person at any election."

The NHMA also has distributed pro-home rule buttons and placards, which are also being displayed in some town halls, Ambrose said.

The Oct. 24 letter to NHMA members advised local officials that the law prevents the display of the buttons, signs and stickers. Municipal workers can wear the buttons while they work, but no town or city vehicles can carry the signs or bumper stickers, NHMA said.

Ambrose said there have been some complaints that the towns are using taxpayer money to help promote this political issue through the NHMA by sending dues money to the association.

Citizens for a Sound Economy have criticized the practice, publishing a list of some communities that have donated between $ 2,400 and $ 50. Donations were made at a rate of 10 cents per citizen.

CSE state director Richard Killion thinks the brochures should be pulled immediately.

"When someone comes to town hall to register, this is the first thing they see -- a pamphlet telling them how to vote on the issue," he said. "A clerk is supposed to be the guardian of the checklist, a guardian of the election and to make sure everything is done in a fair manner."

Among the towns CSE says have donated to NHMA's effort are Allenstown, $ 485; Bennington, $ 127.50; Dublin, $ 160; Easton, $ 50; Francestown, $ 100; Gilford, $ 600; Hampton Falls; $ 175, Keene, $ 2,400; Lee, $ 400; Lisbon, $ 150; Littleton, $ 500; Newbury, $ 250; Northumberland, $ 250; Pembroke, $ 700; Peterborough, $ 600; Sandwich, $ 60; Somersworth, $ 1,000; Stratham, $ 250; Tamworth, $ 220, and Washington, $ 83.

Dianis said the NHMA has made every effort to comply with reporting requirements, filing campaign spending reports with the Secretary of State's office that include a breakdown of the value of staff time devoted to the home rule effort.