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AG Issues Cease and Desist Order to Nashua Mayor and Dems Over Illegal Electioneering

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office issued a cease and desist order to Nashua Mayor Jim Donchess and three fellow Democrats on the city’s board of aldermen over their use of public property to promote their side of a 2021 political debate.

The issue was Proposition 2, which would make substantial changes to the way the city’s police commission is composed.

The government property used was the city’s PEG, or public access TV channels and equipment, which the Attorney General’s Office ruled Donchess and the aldermen used to campaign for their political views.

“Following an investigation, this Office determined that each of your messages constituted electioneering because your messages were specifically designed to influence the votes of voters on Ballot Question 2,” Assistant Attorney General Brendan O’Donnell wrote in the order dated Jan. 11. 

“The Mayor of Nashua and its alderman… remain subject to the prohibition against using government property or equipment to electioneer. Accordingly, this Office orders each of you to cease and desist from using city property, including but not limited to the City’s PEG channels and cable television equipment, to electioneer.”

O’Donnell’s order is directed at Donchess and Aldermen Ben Clemmons, Michael O’Brien, and Lori Wilshire. But Donchess told NHJournal he and his fellow Democrats had every right to take to the airwaves.

“I think (the letter) ignores First Amendment issues,” Donchess said.

Laura Colquhoun, the Nashua resident who filed the complaint, said Donchess and the others clearly broke the law.

“Please understand that political people should not be using public TV stations to sell their message to residents. If it was a debate with both parties showing up, that would not be a problem. However, when you only have one side going on the TV station, that is electioneering, and that is against the law,” Colquhoun told NHJournal.

In 2021, Nashua voters were set to vote on Proposition 2, which would make substantial changes to the way the city’s police commission is composed. Nashua is one of a handful of New Hampshire municipalities where an independent commission oversees the police department.

Nashua is unique in that the three civilian members of its commission are appointed by the Governor’s Office and confirmed by the Executive Council, not by local representatives like the mayor or board of aldermen. Donchess backed Proposition 2 to take back local control of commission appointments.

Under Proposition 2, the commission would be expanded to five members, with three appointed by the mayor, and two appointed by the board. All of the appointments would require board confirmation.

Donchess used Nashua’s local cable access station to make his case for the changes, recording a 15-minute presentation that aired 25 times before the municipal election. Clemmons, Wilshire, and O’Brien recorded their own separate presentation opposing Proposition 2.

“We never intended to do anything wrong,” O’Brien told the news site InDepth NH.

Proposition 2 ended up losing at the ballot box. Colquhoun later used the presentations for her complaint. O’Donnell’s cease and desist letter acknowledges that state law includes an exemption for public officials appearing in a news or information program. It states that while the separate presentations produced and aired by the politicians were a violation, if Donchess and the aldermen participated in a debate about Proposition 2 and had that broadcast on the station, they would not be violating the law.

O’Donnell’s cease and desist letter makes no sense, Donchess said. Both he and the three aldermen have an absolute free speech right to speak on political issues of concern to Nashua citizens.

“Both I and members of the Board of Aldermen were attempting to inform the voters about what the issues were pertaining to the ballot questions,” Donchess said.

Why two separate, competing presentations are against the law, but a debate on a particular issue is OK also makes no sense, Donchess said. It would still see elected officials making their arguments for an election issue on public cable. 

“I do not see a distinction between (a debate) and the two presentations on the police commission,” Donchess said. 

At Mayoral Forum, Dem Stewart Says Manchester Suffers From ‘Structural Racism’

The issues of homelessness, crime, and opioid addiction dominated the conversation at the first mayoral forum in Manchester on Wednesday night. They also revealed a divide between the approach the candidates would take to address them, with Republican Jay Ruais urging more policing, while the three Democrats raised concerns about equity and discrimination.

“Structural racism does play a role in this city; we are not immune from that,” warned Alderman Will Stewart (D-Ward 2) in front of a crowd of several hundred people at the Rex Theatre. Ruais and Stewart were joined on stage by Ward 1 Alderman Kevin Cavanaugh and At-Large Alderman June Trisciani.

Jay Ruais

As mayor, Ruais said he would increase public safety by giving police the tools they need to protect the Queen City. “We have got to get violent criminals off our streets,” Ruais said. He also supported closing a loophole and allowing police to prevent more people from camping in public spaces.

One striking difference was in the responses to a question about Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenberg’s plans to use data to focus police activity in neighborhoods considered crime hotspots.  

Stewart and Trisciani worried that policing focused on tacking criminal hotspots would lead to racial profiling.

“Over-policed neighborhoods based on hotspot data, those are marginalized communities,” Stweart said.

Rather than targeted policing in high-crime areas, Stewart proposed efforts to get people to know one another in their neighborhoods, like block parties and other social events.

Triciani favors a community policing approach incorporating hotspot data while striving for equality. “We still need to treat everyone equally,” Trisciani said.

Manchester At-Large Alderman June Trisciani

Cavanaugh suggested there could be some creative ways for people in non-hotspot neighborhoods to still feel safe while police were tackling crime.

For Ruais, the solution is filling the 22 empty positions in the Manchester Police Department and letting those officers do their jobs. “We have to create a better environment for our police,” Ruais said.

Ruais viewed to help get rid of the state’s bail system, which he said is keeping violent criminals on the streets. “We need to fix our broken PR bail system,” Ruais said.

When asked about issues of diversity in the city, Ruais was the only candidate to answer part of the question in Spanish.

Taxes and spending were also part of the conversation. Cavanaugh and Stewart both said they supported letting voters decide whether to give the Manchester School Board the power to create their own budget, independent from city government. Ruais opposed it, saying Manchester taxpayers were already under too much stress.

Manchester Ward 1 Alderman Kevin Cavanaugh

On the proposed $800 million commuter rail project, all three Democrats supported the idea, and Trisciani wants it to extend to include Concord. Ruais said none of the proposals for a rail line connecting Manchester to Boston made fiscal sense. “I understand the why; I have yet to see the how,” Ruais said.

A financial analysis of the rail proposal anticipates the construction and operation of a Manchester station at an estimated $51 million, all from city coffers.

Manchester can’t afford a rail line given the school district’s aging buildings, unaffordable housing, and a city budget Ruais called a ticking time bomb that uses one-time federal grants to pay for ongoing expenses.

“When do the taxpayers get a break?” he asked.

Ruais Wants to Close Manchester’s Homeless Camp ‘Loophole’

Manchester’s police are hamstrung when dealing with the twin crises of homelessness and addiction, thanks in part to a city ordinance that allows homeless people to camp on public property, according to mayoral candidate Jay Ruais.

The lone Republican in the race to replace Democrat Joyce Craig, Ruais is backing an effort to change the city ordinance prohibiting camping on public property. Under ordinance 130.13, police cannot currently stop someone from setting up a tent on city property. That needs to change, Ruais said.

“We have a significant homelessness crisis in our city, and it is impacting the community at large. In order to make sure our businesses are thriving, and the quality of life for residents and visitors to Manchester is not threatened, we must give our police and first responders the proper tools to address this issue,” Ruais said.

Alderman At Large Joseph Kelly Levasseur is pushing a change to the ordinance to make it easier for police to keep people from sleeping on the streets. The ordinance currently prohibits the camps, but with a loophole: It allows homeless people to stay on the street if no shelter space is available.

Levasseur wants the Board of Aldermen to remove that exception, allowing police to enforce the camping prohibition. Camping on public property without a permit carries a possible $250 fine. Ruais said enforcing ordinances against camping is an important step toward addressing the city’s homeless problem.

“We must deal with this issue in a comprehensive way, one that includes enforcement of our ordinances, addressing the underlying causes of this crisis like addiction and mental health while increasing the availability of affordable housing. What we cannot do is govern in fear of lawsuits, and I support this proposed ordinance change,” Ruais said.

None of the Democrats running for mayor — Ward 1 Alderman Kevin Cavanaugh, Ward 2 Alderman Will Stewart, or Alderman At Large June Trisciani — responded to questions from NHJournal about whether they support closing the street camping loophole. 

Manchester has struggled for years with its homeless crisis. In 2021, the city had about 360 unsheltered people, according to the NH Coalition to End Homelessness annual report. According to city officials, that number has jumped to about 540 people this year.

Much of the homeless population lives in tents and shelters scattered throughout the city, leaving many residents feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods. Craig, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, acknowledged this year that half of the city’s opioid overdose cases happen in homeless camps.

Last year, homeless man Richard Moore, 40, was arrested for fatally stabbing 75-year-old Daniel Whitmore, who was walking near his home, according to police reports. Whitmore lived close to a public rail trial where he reportedly enjoyed walking and which was close to another homeless camp.

After two people died in homeless camps last winter, and a woman was arrested for giving birth in a camp, Craig demanded the state step in to provide National Guard support to deal with the crisis, among other measures. The homeless mother charged with endangering her baby is Alexandra Eckersley, 27, daughter of Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley.

Craig ordered some of the camps cleared this year in reaction to those events, moving about 40 people off the streets. Craig has been pushing a $1.4 million homeless center that will include 40 beds. 

The issue is expected to be front and center in the governor’s race next year if Craig defeats Executive Councilor Warmington for the Democratic nomination.

Asked recently about Craig’s candidacy, Gov. Chris Sununu replied, “Seriously, does anyone want the state of New Hampshire run like Manchester?”

Craig has attempted to blame Sununu and the state government for Manchester’s homeless problem.

“Manchester and communities across the state have been working to address the growing homelessness crisis for years, and mayors have repeatedly asked for the state to collaborate with us to find solutions,” Craig said in a May 2023 statement. “Our communities need a partner in Concord who understands that we can only solve this homelessness crisis if we all work together.”