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House leadership shuts down 'all-reps' online email distribution list over concerns

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 02. 2018 9:39PM

CONCORD — House leadership has shut down the “all-reps” email distribution list it has hosted for years, citing concerns about potential violations of the state’s open-meeting and Right-to-Know laws.

The decision comes after weeks of unpleasant messages flying back and forth among representatives, prompting some to ask that their names be removed from the list. House Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff said abuse of the service did not trigger its demise, but admitted it played a role.

Meanwhile, a state rep. candidate has stepped in to fill the void by creating a distribution list of his own.

Pfaff said discussion about ending the all-reps email has been under way for months, prompted largely by concerns that use of the distribution list was leading to sequential emails among representatives that could violate open meeting requirements.

“It was at times skirting the edge of open meeting rules, and might have been skirting the edges of the Right-to-Know law,” said Pfaff. “A sequential email can look like they are discussing something outside of a posted meeting, so instead of having anything challenged, we are not going to host it and err on the side of transparency.”

The shutdown, which took effect on Monday, came after several days of email exchanges that started when Hampton Republican Rep. Philip Bean wrote a widely distributed email taking issue with a campaign flyer from Americans for Prosperity targeting him for his 2017 vote against Right-to-Work legislation.

“That wasn’t a trigger,” says Pfaff. “We had been planning this during the session, and it’s been a discussion point for more than a year. We did some research and just decided to execute it right now, when there’s a little bit of down time. You can get these things done when you are not in the throes of the session.”

Pfaff acknowledged that the tenor of some recent communication was a concern.

“Some of these discussions don’t put the Legislature in the best of light,” he said. “We want to keep the Legislature’s best foot forward.”

He also cited the fact that some reps were using the distribution list for political fundraising and other inappropriate purposes. On top of that, he said, the list designed as an internal communication tool had become widely used by “all sorts of people.”

While Pfaff says he’s had nothing but positive reaction to the decision among representatives, others expressed disappointment.

“I found it an extremely useful tool and quite frankly I don’t see the argument that it violates Right-to-Know rules,” said Swanzey Republican Rep. Jim McConnell.

He confirmed that discussions about pulling the plug on the service have been under way for months.

“It’s not a new idea. We’ve been talking about this for quite a while,” he said. “And throughout I made my position clear. I strongly support making sure there are some options for a rep. who is unhappy with something or supports something to reach everyone, so they all understand his or her position. Some using it are not doing us any favors because they come up with silly stuff.”

The “silly stuff” was in evidence in the past two weeks, according to Manchester Democrat Amanda Bouldin.

During the two weeks prior to Pfaff’s email, reps kept replying-all to the chain started by Bean, according to Bouldin.

Some of his fellow Republicans didn’t like what Bean complained about in his original email, and were “snarky in response, cc’ing every single person on the list each time they wrote to lash out,” she said.

At one point the discussion devolved into what people had for breakfast and wardrobe critique.

“I think it’s a shame that the distribution list is being shut down because some immature folks can’t discern whether they should reply to one person or 500,” said Bouldin.

Pfaff points out that all the official government email addresses for the reps are posted on the State House website, and anyone can build a distribution list if they like.

As word of the impending shutdown spread late last week, a Newmarket Republican who works in IT decided to fill the void.

On Sunday, a day before the official list was shut down, Harrison deBree used it to alert all reps that he had created new distribution lists for the House and Senate.

“While doing so is not without expense to me, I consider it my civic duty to provide such service if the government refuses to,” deBree wrote in an email to all reps. He was an unsuccessful candidate for a House seat representing Dover in 2014, and is running in November as the only Republican in a three-seat district serving Newmarket.

As of Monday morning, two representatives had already contacted deBree, asking him to remove their emails from the distribution list.

“I told them, when you run for office, you are a public official so you’re going to get emails,” he said.

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