Council Agrees to Shut St. James Polling Site
Town Moderator Lynn Christensen says site is not compliant with attorney general regulations.
With the presidential primary in the books, and Merrimack's local elections just three months away, Town Moderator Lynn Christensen approached the Town Council last Thursday night with some observations and a plea: to close the St. James Methodist Church polling location going forward.
Christensen said the church location is not only a traffic nightmare but it's not safe and, for that matter, not compliant with polling location standards set by the attorney general's office.
Christensen said the attorney general's office inspects Merrimack's polling locations frequently, given the size of the town, and the site at St. James is too small, the main entrance is not handicap accessible and the parking lot has deteriorated over the years making it difficult for some to navigate. Add to that the traffic complications, Christensen said, and its clear the site just doesn't work well for the town anymore.
“There is nothing about that site that is compliant,” Christensen said.
Christensen asked the board to agree to shut it down, with thanks to the church who has allowed the town to use the site since it split into three polling precincts.
She told the board she'd hoped this would be a moot point by requesting the town and school district consider a single polling location at Merrimack High School, however, during a school board meeting in December, the board did not support that idea.
On Dec. 19, the School Board held a discussion about the possibility of having the high school become a single polling place in town and weighed the effects it might have on the school calendar and teacher workshop days. The conversation was a precursor to a budget discussion the board was to have about the purchase of a floor mat that would protect the gym floor during the elections.
During the discussion, members of the board brought up concerns about the impact creating a single polling location would have on the school calendar. The amount of traffic it would create would require school to be closed for the day and given the primary date is not set until other states set there's it would create a limbo day in the calendar where they wouldn't know what day school would need to be canceled.
Superintendent Marge Chiafery said it would require some parental flexibility.
“We can use school facilities (on election days) for teacher workshops but we really cannot be in session," Chiafery said.
She said as she understood it a driving factor in the request had to do with safety concerns at St. James United Methodist Church on election day.
“As a moderator she's always just looking to try and figure out what would be a better solution,” Chiafery said.
Board member Jennifer Thornton said she had serious concerns about how the decision would affect the calendar, which is already a hot topic that is heavily argued at times.
School Board Chairwoman Jody Vaillancourt said she too had concerns would not support the single location at the high school for the effects it would have on the school calendar.
In the end, a vote on the matter was split, with Shannon Barnes and George Markwell voting in favor of the single polling location at the high school, with Chris Ortega, Vaillancourt and Thornton opposed.
Town Council Chairman Finlay Rothhaus said he didn't particularly understand the School Board's position and decision to refuse the single polling location and he would make a call to get more information about the discussion from that meeting.
Christensen said when she initially talked with Chiafery it sounded like the single polling place could work, but then the board declined.
Christensen said she is hopeful the School Board might reconsider its position, especially if the main concern has to do with the revolving date of the presidential primary. She said that one election, held every four years, could be held at James Mastricola Upper Elementary School as a single polling location. The school could handle the traffic without having to close for the day, she said, given the lower turnout typically garnered by the primary.
Closing St. James would move all the voters who head to that location to the upper elementary school and the town would simply have two polling sites, Christensen. Redistricting the town wouldn't make sense given the size of the St. John Neumann site, she said. But, she was confident the school can handle the traffic.
The Town Council agreed to shut down the polling site and thanked the St. James community for allowing its use over the years.
At the next Town Council meeting, on Jan. 25, the board will formally consider a second request from Christensen to change the town's voting hours from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. to 7 a.m.-7 p.m.