Sunday, March 20, 2016

Food For Thought .. Hopefully Some Will Get The Message

Sentinel Editorial

Official ballot doesn't work; but what would?

 On March 8, Fall Mountain Regional School District voters faced a real conundrum: whether to pass the district’s proposed budget of $29,083,166, or allow the default budget of $29,083,166 to kick in. Perhaps the voters found some humor in voting against a budget they were going to be stuck with in either case, or maybe it was in protest, but, for the record, the proposed budget went down hard, 1,614 to 900.

A logical person might wonder how the “default” budget of a district could cost as much as the spending the school board and administrators actually want. Such a person clearly hasn’t been paying attention to school and town budgeting in New Hampshire over the past two decades.

In Keene, school voters overwhelmingly backed their proposed budget of $64,977,772. But that made sense, because the default budget would have cost them $65,660,584. Also, it’s worth noting that “overwhelming” in this case means three out of four people who cast votes, which only 3.8 percent of the district’s voters did.

That’s indicative of the very flawed process that is the “official-ballot” system of government.

Budgeting is one of its biggest failures. The “default budget” mechanism was intended to give voters a safe haven. If the school board or selectmen proposed too high an increase, the default budget provided a cheaper fallback. Except the language of the law left enough wiggle room that, through the magic of creative accounting, the default budget can be constructed in such a way that it actually exceeds the amount officials are backing. Thus, voters are left with accepting the board’s budget or paying even more come tax time.

The really big issue with the official ballot is that despite appearances and intent, it diminishes participation in the process of government. It was pitched as a way to increase participation. Voters were too busy, proponents argued, to spend four, five or six hours debating budgets and zoning and contracts at a town or school district meeting. Under the official ballot, they could still do that if they wanted to, at the deliberative session, but the actual voting would take place separately.

True, voting totals are higher than the number of people that typically showed up at the traditional meetings. However, most deliberative sessions draw far fewer voters than those old meetings did. In Keene this year, 80 of 16,433 registered voters set the budget and other warrant articles that went before voters. That’s less than half of 1 percent of voters, who also gutted three warrant articles submitted by petition. And the bulk of those attending are often those with the most at stake — school or town employees, their spouses, family or friends, and the board members and staff themselves. Conversely, many of those voting on Town Meeting Day likely have little real knowledge of the issues and discussions that went into the warrant they’re voting on. They’re removed from the debate.

It’s tough. We get it. People are getting busier all the time, and while the growing dissatisfaction with government at all levels should spur more voters to become involved where they can, instead it’s having the opposite effect. Those without a stake in the budget, the teachers contract or the zoning plan tend to just stay home.

The old-style town meetings, while still popular in many communities, remain flawed as well. Too few voters attend, and they’re aging. Such meetings remain vulnerable to groups of voters intent on passing — or defeating — a particular article.
So what to do?

Nearly every year, the state Legislature tackles bills meant to “fix” the issues of SB2, only to see them fall by the wayside. In 2012 alone, there were eight bills devoted to the topic. The only one to pass called for a study committee, now long gone with no changes to show for it.

One solution might be for more school districts and towns to invest all the power of voters in the boards that run things. Selectmen and school board members would become responsible for passing the budget, rezoning and approving contracts, as Keene’s city councilors are.

Voters might bristle at giving up such powers. If so, perhaps making those elected officials more accountable, say by shortening their terms in office, would help. Another possibility would be to end staggering of board terms, all members are accountable to voters at the same time.

Maybe a lesser step, such as moving to a representative meeting, where small districts each elect one representative to attend the debate and vote, would work in some cases. Brattleboro uses such a system, but some of our towns are awfully small. Dividing up Roxbury’s 172 voters seems pretty pointless.

Truthfully, we don’t know the answer; only that there’s an issue and it needs to be debated and addressed. The official ballot system seems a failed experiment that’s further removing voters from the process.

Ultimately, the real problem is this: Too few people care enough to spend the needed time and energy to run their local governments, either as candidates or by attending those meetings at which issues are debated.
We’ve yet to see any proposed solution to such apathy. But for the good of the local governance
we all claim to take such pride in, one must be found.

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