Executive councilor defends his voting practices amid transparency questions
Wheeler’s post-meeting written votes raise questions
Republican Executive Councilor David Wheeler has made his votes against funding for family planning and sex education well known at council meetings. But for years, he’s made other potentially controversial votes quietly by taking no position during the meeting and arranging afterward for his votes to be included in meeting minutes.
That includes his votes at the council’s Feb. 8 meeting against emergency rental assistance and home visits to at-risk families during pregnancy and up until their child turns 5. At the council’s Jan. 18 meeting, Wheeler used the practice to vote against federal pandemic assistance to restaurants and the hiring of two directors at the Department of Health and Human Services. He also waited until after the meeting to vote against a state payment to Hampstead for the tax revenue it lost when the state purchased Hampstead Hospital.
In each case, Wheeler gave the council’s secretary a handwritten “No List” after the meeting of agenda items he opposed. The meeting minutes include his no votes, but they do not say Wheeler waited until after the meeting to vote.
Wheeler acknowledged the practice in an interview before Wednesday’s Executive Council meeting and said it’s been a long-standing practice among councilors.
Anna Sventek, spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office, said that office looked back to 2018 for these type of votes; in that time Wheeler has been the only councilor to use the practice.
Wheeler disagreed when asked by the New Hampshire Bulletin if the practice limits public transparency of his positions.
“I think just the opposite,” he said. “I want to make sure my constituents know what my vote is and that my no vote gets recorded in the official minutes for all to see and know.”
When asked why he doesn’t voice his vote during the meeting and instead hands a note to the council’s secretary afterward, Wheeler said he sometimes does make his vote known. “If I sense it’s going to change the outcome, I will definitely vote verbally as well.”
Right to know?
Attorney General John Formella said the practice has been used for decades. According to his legal analysis, its long-standing use by at least one councilor does not violate the council’s procedure manual, which states, “a silence or abstention will be taken as acquiescence or concurrence in the action taken by the majority of votes cast.”
He said Wheeler’s actions do not violate the state’s right-to-know law, which requires votes be made public unless taken in a nonpublic session or during a secret-ballot vote, because the votes are recorded immediately after the meeting.
Wheeler’s voting practice was news to several former and sitting councilors from both parties. That included Councilors Janet Stevens, Joe Kenney and Cinde Warmington, who is challenging the practice.
“I believe that the public has a right to know how all councilors voted,” Warmington said at Wednesday’s meeting, noting that the Executive Council’s oversight of state spending and appointments is intended as a check on the governor and Legislature. “I think the Executive Council is the hallmark of transparency. We talk about it all the time. … It is directly contrary to the public interest to allow councilors to hide their votes from the public.”
Formella told councilors they have the authority to end the practice. Warmington and Stevens made clear they support doing so.
Wheeler, of Milford, is serving his sixth two-year term on the council. In that time, he served alongside former councilors Colin Van Ostern, Andru Volinsky and Congressman Chris Pappas. All told the Bulletin they had not used the practice and were unaware of it.
Former Councilor Debora Pignatelli of Nashua, who did not serve with Wheeler, had no recollection of the practice. She said she provided the council’s secretary a record of her abstentions due to a conflict of interest but only after she had voiced the abstentions during the meeting. Pignatelli said she followed the meeting with a newsletter to constituents explaining her votes.
“I wanted to make sure people didn’t think I just didn’t want to vote,” she said. “Just because it’s been going on long-term doesn’t mean it’s a good practice.”
Sununu served three two-year terms on the council and now presides over the council but does not have a vote. He too had been unaware that votes were being cast for the first time after the meeting via a note to the council secretary.
He asked Formella if someone could change their vote after a meeting. They can’t, Formella said. He wanted to know whether a record of votes provided to the secretary after a meeting is public information. Yes, Formella said.
What if the governor declares a vote unanimous, unaware one councilor did not vote? The minutes will reflect the vote provided by the councilor following the meeting, according to Formella.
“I’m totally confused, myself,” Sununu said, adding, “That was as clear as the Charles River.”
This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NH Business Review and other outlets to republish its reporting.