SB2 is not for Hollis and Brookline

To the Editor:

Why do some want the SB2 form of town meeting versus the traditional meeting?

The benefits are always touted as allowing more people to vote on the town warrant articles because voting is conducted on Election Day. This is definitely a benefit. But what is it that people can vote on? There is no negotiation or change, but only a yes or no vote on what is presented.

If the Deliberative Session, held in early February when the weather is often worse than the March Election Day, was well attended, things might be different. But history of the past 20 years has shown us that about 10 percent of the voters who traditionally attended the Town Meeting show up for the Deliberative Session.

Why should they, some say? We get to vote on all the articles on Election Day! But what you get to vote on has been decided by the few who attended the Deliberative Session.

One year, in Mont Vernon, ONE person showed up for Deliberative Session and decided on what the entire town was going to see on the ballot on Election Day. Is that representation?

We often worry about a special interest group coming to the Town Meeting to sway an issue. SB2 makes it so much easier for that to happen. A New Hampshire Municipal Association spokesperson once said, "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 Statehouse."

Deliberative sessions in Candia underscored what some believe to be a big flaw in the SB2 form of government. Both sessions drew few voters. At one, a proposal to pay for the closure of the town’s incinerator site was amended from $100,000 to $1. One year, a petitioned article, signed by 25 or more voters, was changed from "To see if the voters would raise & appropriate …" etc., to read "To see." and that was it? Voters showed up to vote on an article that read "To see." Bills were introduced to prevent that, but that actually happened.

At a School District Deliberative Session, a petition warrant to reduce kindergarten from a full-day session to a half-day session was amended to include language indicating that the warrant was "advisory" and "non-binding." Was that the intent of the petitioners? Would this have happened at a well-attended traditional town meeting?

But those examples are not the items that continue to plague the SB2 form of town meetings. It is the budget that is the biggest problem. The budget is set at the deliberative session with a handful of people in attendance. A default budget is then set in case the regular budget does not pass on Election Day. The default budget is often greater than the rejected budget. On Election Day, you cannot ask questions, no explanations are offered, no opportunity to make changes are available. Vote yes or no, that’s it! Vote no and you get the default, which mirrors last year’s budget.

As chairman of the Municipal & County Government Committee at the N.H. Legislature, I see firsthand the attempts to remedy the issues with SB2. There are currently (2016) four bills in the N.H. Legislature dealing with SB2 budgets. Over the past 20 years, the N.H. Legislature has had close to 50 bills to "fix" SB2.

This legislative biennium, one bill would have you vote on two budgets on the ballot; one regular and one default. If both fail, you hold a traditional town meeting the next week and establish a budget. Another would have each amendment made at the deliberative session listed on the voting ballot. If an article to buy a fire truck was changed to NOT buy a fire truck, and the amendment failed, could you still buy that fire truck? The article to buy was never voted on.

If you are truly dissatisfied with the way your town and/or school district is governed and you feel the SB2 version is the only option, you should look into a charter form of local government.

If you want 1 percent of the district’s voters to tell you what you will vote on with no chance to express an opinion, SB2 may be for you. If you want to be a New Englander and participate in the New England representative deliberative town meeting form of government, vote NO on the SB2 article on the Hollis-Brookline Cooperative School District Warrant at the March 2016 elections.

Jim Belanger

Hollis town moderator

N.H. state representative and chairman
of the N.H. Municipal & County Government Committee