Nearly 20 years after legislators permitted towns to let residents make major town decisions by paper ballot, officials still are trying to tweak the law that sparks debate over its fairness every year.
Rep. Frederick Rice, R-Hampton, has
submitted a bill this year to protect warrant articles submitted by
residents from being amended during deliberative sessions to prevent
"shenanigans and tomfoolery" of past years from squashing the article's
About a third of the state's residents and more
than half its student population live under Senate Bill 2 rule, where
warrant articles dealing with budgets, town purchases and zoning
articles are discussed - and potentially amended - at a deliberative
session required in early February before the final articles get voted
on at the polls on the second Tuesday in March.
"There is more
legislation filed every year to change or alter parts of Senate Bill 2
than almost any statute that we would follow over at the State House,"
said Judy Silva, deputy director for legal, advocacy &
communications services at the New Hampshire Municipal Association.
month, Temple for the ninth straight year will vote on whether to adopt
SB2, in an effort for voters to have a say in town affairs without
sitting through a multihour meeting with their neighbors.
core group in town believes in a town meeting where you deliberate and
also vote on it," Town Clerk Wendy Drouin said. Last year's warrant
article to adopt SB2 received 48 percent support, shy of the 60 percent
Temple, a town of 981 registered voters located between
Nashua and Keene, sends its children to the ConVal School District,
which follows SB2. "Unfortunately at the polls, uneducated voters show
up," Drouin said.
But others, including Jim Adams, chairman of
the Granite State Taxpayers, said the SB2 method has "proven to be a
very good way of governance" to allow greater participation.
is an excellent vehicle, so everyone who votes in the election has a
say in their ... taxes in their community," Adams said.
Grant, who heads the Barrington Taxpayers Association, saw his submitted
warrant article about voting on who pays for roads and sewers amended
at the deliberative session in 2007, stripping everything but the
article's first two words, "To see."
After the state Supreme
Court in 2008 sided with the town, the Legislature in 2011 changed the
SB2 law to better protect petition warrant articles, according to Silva.
Added in the law: "No warrant article shall be amended to eliminate the
subject matter of the article. An amendment that changes the dollar
amount of an appropriation in a warrant article shall not be deemed to
violate this sub-paragraph."
Grant said he thinks the town "took
away the rights of the voters who were working hard for this petitioned
warrant article" to get before voters.
He backs Price's attempt
to change the law but he also likes that SB2 gets more people voting on
town issues than under the old town meeting format. He acknowledged
there is a cost to that.
"I think the low-information voter speaks for the country," he said. "They go from watching game shows down to the ballot box."
state municipal association examined 27 towns and found that an average
of 2.4 percent of registered voters attended the deliberative sessions
in 2010 and 25.5 percent of registered voters voted on the budget at the
Silva said many voters in SB2 towns don't recognize their full responsibilities.
of the things I always say to people, I think that to the extent that
people feel under the SB2 form of government they only have to show up
and vote, they don't have to go to the deliberative session, I think
they're missing out on half the meeting and a critical step of the
process," she said.
"It really is much the same process you have
at a traditional town meeting, but you put off the final vote," Silva
said. "If you want a say in the final question that gets voted on, you
have to come to the deliberative session."
More than 65 towns and
around 80 school districts operate under SB2. It requires 60 percent
support to adopt or repeal the SB2 official ballot format.
still a very popular form of government and it remains popular," said
economist Dennis Delay, who has done research on the topic for the New
Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies in Concord.
"Some towns, it becomes very argumentative on whether it's a good idea or not," he said.
Legislature passed SB2 in 1995, towns began adopting it the following
year and the first towns started using the ballot format in 1997.
than 40 towns that have tried to adopt SB2 have failed. And more than
30 towns have failed in their attempts to repeal it, according to the
state Department of Revenue Administration.
Between 1996 and
2006, three communities repealed SB2 - Enfield, Dorchester and Orange,
according to a report by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy
Studies. No school districts repealed the measure during that time.
a third of New Hampshire residents live in a town with a traditional
town meeting, another third under SB2 rule and the remaining third in
communities with a city council, according to Delay. He also analyzed
the per-person spending for town expenses among SB2 and non-SB2
"I couldn't find any data that says SB2 towns spend more or less," he said.
towns and school districts "tend to be larger, they tend to have more
people in them than the traditional town meeting towns and school
districts," Delay said. "I think that speaks to again, as the town
grows, there is a form of government that works better than the
traditional town meeting."