By Doug Ireland
---- — The session isn’t over yet, but some Southern New Hampshire legislators have already earned failing grades for attendance.
Voting records for the region’s nearly four dozen state representatives show that while a handful participated in each of the 164 roll-call votes through June 5, others were often nowhere to be seen.
Many lawmakers missed several dozen votes over the last five months.
Leading the pack of absentees was Rep. Gary Azarian, R-Salem, who voted only six times the entire session — all on May 22. That was when the House rejected expanded gambling legislation that could have paved the way for a casino at Rockingham Park in Salem.
Business commitments and a serious family illness prevented him from making the nearly daily trek to Concord, he said. Azarian missed 158 votes only a year after participating in 96 percent of the House roll-call votes
He said he considered resigning at one point, but decided to stick it out once his personal situation improved.
“It’s been difficult, I needed to be closer to home,” Azarian said. “Hopefully, the voters will understand that my family needed to come first.”
Others who missed numerous votes this session include Reps. David Lundgren, R-Londonderry; Jeffrey Oligny, R-Plaistow; and Ronald Belanger, R-Salem.
In contrast, there were those who didn’t miss a single roll-call vote. They are Reps. Patrick Bick, R-Salem; Mary Griffin, R-Windham; John Sedensky, R-Hampstead; Kevin Waterhouse, R-Windham; and Lisa Whittemore, D-Londonderry.
“I make every meeting — that’s my job,” said Griffin, 87. “There are some people who don’t have the same dedication. I would say, ‘Don’t do it’ if you’re not interested. It’s not fair.”
Legislators who only missed a vote or two include Rep. Mary Allen, R-Newton, and Rep. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston.
For those who seldom miss a vote, it can be frustrating when a colleague is often absent.
“That’s what you ran for,” Allen said. “If you are not planning to be there on session day, then you should not run. It’s unfair to the people you represent.”
Allen, 82, is serving her sixth term in the House. She missed only one vote this session, simply because she stepped out of the room, and two last year.
While some New Hampshire lawmakers juggle full-time jobs and family responsibilities, Allen said she didn’t even considering running for office until after she retired in 2001.
Once elected, those who are still working need to make arrangements with their employer to avoid missing key votes, she said.
“If you have agreed to do it, you should do it,” Allen said. “If you haven’t made an arrangement, then you are doing a disservice.”
Jobs interfere with service
Career commitments was the main reason Rep. Jeffrey Oligny, R-Plaistow, missed 94 of 164 votes, or 57 percent, this session, which ends later this month.
Oligny, an engineer, said he’s committed to serving his constituents, but still has to put two children through college.
“I’m not retired and I’m not wealthy,” he said. “You do have to support the family and pay the bills.”
Oligny said he works more than 50 hours a week and must travel between offices in Nashua and Lexington, Mass. There are many days when Oligny said he just can’t miss work if he wishes to remain employed. That translated into him missing more than half the votes as of June 5.
He said while voting is important, so, too, is building consensus for legislation among other lawmakers before key votes are taken.
A perfect voting record isn’t everything, he said.
“Just because you are there doesn’t mean you are doing your job,” he said. “I’ve seen some representatives who have been asleep.”
Another legislator whose job has caused him to miss votes is Rep. Daniel Tamburello, R-Londonderry.
Tamburello, a systems engineer, father of five and member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, has missed 69 votes. He’s only voted 58 percent of the time to date. Last year, he only participated in 68 percent of the roll-call votes, citing unexpected changes at work.
“I like to pay my bills, house my family and feed my children,” Tamburello said at the time. He did not return calls for comment last week.
But Rep. Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry, said Thursday the House needs more lawmakers like Tamburello even though he may miss some votes.
“He can’t be up there all the time, but we need more people like that,” Baldasaro said. “He is very smart, articulate and outspoken”
“Most of the reps have jobs,” he said. “I’m fortunate because I’m retired. I have more time to give to take care of the needs of the people.”
Baldasaro only missed 15 roll-call votes this year. Last year, he was absent for just eight of 262 votes.
He also defended two other Londonderry Republicans, Reps. Robert Introne and David Lundgren. Neither could be reached for comment.
Lundgren, a chiropractor, missed 103 votes — mainly because of his job responsibilities, Baldasaro said.
“These legislators make $100 a year and they have families to feed,” Baldasaro said. “If they make it 50 to 60 percent of the time, it’s win-win.”
Introne was absent for 82 votes after having hip replacement surgery, Baldasaro said.
Another lawmaker absent for much of the session because of failing health was Rep. Ronald Belanger, R-Salem. He missed 93 votes.
Belanger, 74, was hospitalized for weeks this winter with pneumonia and then needed a pacemaker. He also faces possible back surgery this summer.
The 24-year House member said he makes it to Concord whenever his health allows it — often voting while in a wheelchair.
“I always make a point that if I can get there, I’m up there,” he said. “I still have a better voting record than some of the others.”
Absenteeism not problematic
House leaders for both parties said despite a large number of lawmakers who have illnesses or family or job commitments on any given day, absenteeism isn’t a major problem. Most call ahead to explain their situation, they said.
Majority Leader Stephen Shurtleff, D-Penacook, and Minority Leader Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, said on average, roughly 350 to 375 of the members participate in roll-call votes.
“Out of 400 people, you are always going to have a small percentage (absent),” Shurtleff said. “The vast majority of the people take the post very seriously.”
Health and family issues are not uncommon, he said.
“Sadly, those things happen,” he said. “Your heart goes out to them.”
Most are excused absences while a small number are not, he said. Some lawmakers skip votes unless they are truly interested in the legislation, Shurtleff said.
“You may have a few who just want to have the state license plate,” he joked.