Elected officials in Portsmouth are encouraging the city manager to move forward with creating policies that suggest public employees should get vaccinated against COVID-19 to protect people from exposure.

Last week, City Manager Karen Conard sent out a memo saying that they are requiring all staff who have been vaccinated to provide proof of that to the Human Resources Department for the purpose of planning in the event of an exposure.

During the city council meeting on Tuesday night, Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine introduced a motion backing Conard as she moves forward with setting vaccination policies for employees.

Splaine's motion includes regular testing for employees and contractors who do not produce proof of vaccination.

Splaine explained the rationale behind his motion.

"You will note there are millions of public sector employees throughout the country in different states, communities, cities, and towns who are being encouraged to be vaccinated," Splaine said.

Splaine said he has talked with city employees who are vaccinated and want some form of assurance that their fellow colleagues are vaccinated as well.

Splaine added that because children cannot get vaccinated, it is important that everyone "go the extra mile" by wearing a mask and getting vaccinated themselves.

City Councilor Esther Kennedy said she was in turmoil and she wanted to recuse herself from the vote because she had been advised at work that this request cannot be imposed on public employees in New Hampshire.

Councilor Petra Huda agreed.

"I would agree with Councilor Kennedy. I would have a hard time doing this and going against the laws that are in place at this time," Huda said.

Councilor John Tabor asked to hear from the legal department.

City Attorney Robert Sullivan said experts have reached different legal conclusions on the topic, but they have concluded in his department that when it comes to accessing public buildings for services, no questions can be asked about vaccination.

However, Sullivan said, employees may be subject to collective bargaining agreements. Terms and conditions of employment have to be collectively bargained for many of Portsmouth's employees and a vaccination clause could be added.

"In general, I think we have concluded after much discussion, that the municipality's authority over employees is broader than its authority over members of the public in general in connection with this vaccination issue," Sullivan said.

City Councilor Deaglan McEachern said people are misinterpreting Splaine's motion and assuming that a vaccination standard at city hall would lead down the path of required vaccination for all residents.

"That's simply not the case. This is an employer/employee decision that we are discussing here,"  McEachern said.

McEachern said Sullivan raised a good point in saying everything needs to be negotiated through collective bargaining.

 

Seven councilors voted in favor of Splaine's motion with Kennedy and Huda abstaining.

The council also voted unanimously on a motion by Splaine to encourage face mask use in all public areas of city buildings.

Contact Managing News Editor Kimberley Haas at Kimberley.Haas@townsquaremedia.com. 

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