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Years later, SB2 still spurs debate

New Hampshire Sunday News

February 16. 2013 11:53PM

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 original purpose.

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.

Next 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.

"The 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 needed.

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.

"This is an excellent vehicle, so everyone who votes in the election has a say in their ... taxes in their community," Adams said.

Ken 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 subparagraph."

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."

The 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 polls.

Silva said many voters in SB2 towns don't recognize their full responsibilities.

"One 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.

"It's 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.

The Legislature passed SB2 in 1995, towns began adopting it the following year and the first towns started using the ballot format in 1997.

More 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.

About 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 communities.

"I couldn't find any data that says SB2 towns spend more or less," he said.

SB2 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."

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