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Hooksett council rejects charter amendments

HOOKSETT - Public criticism at a public hearing Wednesday led to the Town Council withdrawing two proposed charter amendments that would have lowered the number of signatures required for voters to contest council decisions.

The first amendment would have reduced the number of signatories required to put petitions on zoning or building code amendments on a town ballot from 2 percent of town voters to 25 voters.

The second amendment would have reduced the number of signatures required to put a referendum on a Town Council ruling from 20 percent of registered voters to 25 voters.

Hooksett has a little over 9,000 registered voters, according to town officials. That means the 2 and 20 percent of registered voters would be about 180 and 1,800 signatures, respectively.

The amendments were presented to bring the town's petition requirements closer to state laws on the issue (which call for "25 or more signatures," but does not preclude a higher bar) and to open the process up, making citizen participation in government easier, according to Town Administrator Dean Shankle.

However, about 20 or so residents argued Wednesday that subjecting town governance and rules to the scrutiny to so few people could have unintended consequences, including weakening representative government, opening the ballot up to frivolous petitions and special interest groups and potentially escalating costs for the town.

Don Riley, who served on the charter commission that wrote the current charter, was critical of the amendments at the hearing.

"The bar needed to be high to ensure that frivolous items didn't make it through to the town warrant, which is exactly what would happen, in my view, if that bar was lowered to 25 (votes)," he said. "It would cause a lot of confusion, and it would start to dilute the town warrant."

Hooksett resident David Pearl agreed.

"We have a representative form of government. Zoning is a complex issue," said Pearl. "When I see the changes that (the board) brings forward after a lot of thought it put in, I'm still a little confused sometimes and really have to work through them. ... You could find 25 signatures in an hour or two."

Pearl said that the low bar could open the ballot up for special interests group to take advantage of the process for their benefit.

The question of lowering the bar on referendum petitions drew even more concern.

"This one really concerns me," said Riley, who noted that referendums could apply to a broad array of council decisions. "The discussion on this one at the charter commission was 'let's keep the bar high so that an issue that really needs to be reconsidered will receive a high number of petitioners, which will give you every indication that its something that does need to be reconsidered.'"

Councilor Todd Lizotte said that should council decisions be easily subject to referendum, councilors could be "placed into a situation where we're placed into a political mode of defending the decision instead of attending to the duties that we have."

Critics also said that special elections could prove costly.

The town charter states that in the event of a referendum petition, a special election must be held at the town's expense to address it no less than 30 days and no more than 90 days after its certification, the only exception being if the town election is within 120 days of the certification.

Riley estimated that a special election using electronic machines could cost somewhere between $3,000 to $4,000. Paper ballot elections would likely cost no more than $2,000.

The council voted later in the evening to retract both proposed warrants, keeping the town charter as it is for the time being.

Two other proposed warrant articles were approved by the council without issue. These included the removal the town administrator and a second town administration representative (currently Public Works Director Leo Lessard) as voting members of the Planning Board while keeping the Public Works director in an advisory capacity, and a clarification allowing annual Town Meetings to be held on the first and second Saturdays of April as well as any day in between.

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