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February 01. 2014 8:24PM

Weare joins long list of towns rethinking SB2

When Weare residents head to their deliberative session on Tuesday to weigh in on a warrant article seeking to rescind Senate Bill 2 for its school district, they'll join a long line of voters who have considered the ballot format since it was first approved by state legislators nearly 20 years ago.

While some communities have made multiple attempts to either adopt or rescind SB2 over the years - Sanbornton leads the pack with 13 adoption attempts - such annual efforts could become a thing of the past if a bill proposed in the Senate passes. SB 301 would allow towns to put a two-year ban on petitions to either adopt or repeal SB2 procedures, provided that such a petition had failed when put before voters two years in a row.

"This doesn't infringe on anyone's rights to petition their government," said state Sen. Peggy Gilmour, D-Hollis, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 301. "This just says, in communities where there have been attempts at either taking on, or doing away, with SB2 again and again, let's take a break for a couple of years."

Adopted in 1995, pursuant to RSA 40:13 - also known as SB2 - any town, school district or cooperative school district that raises and appropriates funds at an annual meeting can adopt a process whereby all warrant articles are given their final vote by official ballot.

SB2 permits towns to adopt "the official ballot for voting on all issues before the voters" at the same time they elect local officials.

Adoption of SB2 requires a three-fifths, or 60 percent, majority vote at the polls. Similarly, after a town adopts SB2, a three-fifths majority vote is needed to rescind it.

Under SB2, the annual town meeting is divided into two sessions that are held about a month apart.

The first session, known as the "deliberative session", includes explanation, discussion, debate and amendment of each warrant article. There is no up or down vote on the final warrant articles at the first session; that occurs during the second session, when voters tackle the official ballot on election day. SB2 official balloting is available to both towns and school districts.

Prime vote

The most significant vote at the second session involves the proposed town budget. The voters choose between this proposed budget and a "default" budget, which is automatically enacted if the proposed budget fails to receive a majority vote. The "default budget" is defined by RSA 40: 13 IX (b), as follows: Default budget as used in this subdivision means the amount of the same appropriations as contained in the operating budget authorized for the previous year, reduced and increased, as the case may be, by debt service, contracts, and other obligations previously incurred or mandated by law, and reduced by one-time expenditures contained in the operating budget.

"It's still a very popular form of government and it remains popular," said economist Dennis Delay, who researched the topic for the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies in Concord.

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 or similar body, according to Delay.

According to the N.H. Department of Revenue Administration (DRA), in 2012, there were 67 towns using the SB2 system, along with 59 school districts and 19 regional school districts. DRA has yet to compile statistics for 2013.

State statistics show more larger communities and schools tended to switch to SB2 than smaller ones. The DRA reports more than 40 towns have turned down SB2 over the years, and more than 30 towns have failed in their attempts to repeal it.

"Right now, I am not aware of any communities other than Weare with SB2 questions going before voters," said Michelle Clark, a DRA adviser. "We review the warrants as they are sent in to the state, and I haven't seen any others come in."

History of defeat

Last year, for the 13th time, voters in Sanbornton defeated a proposal to change to the SB2 form of government. The petitioned ballot question needed 60 percent of the vote to pass , but received only 49 percent. According to town records, the vote was 335 in favor of changing to SB2 and 352 against. Of 2,175 residents in town, 696, or 32 percent, came out to vote.

In 2012, the question fell short by about 20 votes. Earl Leighton led the effort to have SB2 adopted in Sanbornton the last five years.

"I am a big supporter of SB2," said Leighton.

"We usually get between 180 and 220 people to show up at Town Meeting. That's about one percent of the residents deciding spending for the entire town. On election day, we have about 800 come out to vote. That's more representative of the community."

Leighton said he is not taking up the SB cause again this year, and the issue will not appear as a warrant article.

"If there was a surge of support from people here to make the switch, I would be happy to lead the charge again," said Leighton. "But if it's going to happen, I think there needs to be some new faces attached to the effort."

Last spring, Temple put forth an attempt to switch to SB2 for the ninth straight year. It failed, with 178 voting in favor of the switch and 213 against.

"It can be a very argumentative question in some communities, whether it's a good idea or not," said Delay.

Gilmour said the idea behind SB 301 was born after she heard from officials in Madison, where four attempts to adopt SB2 have been made since 1999. All have come up short.

"That is a community where the SB2 question shows up on warrants year after year," said Gilmour.

"I was approached by some in Madison, asking if there was some type of mechanism put in place to give communities a break - not take away someone's right to petition their government. It allows everyone to step back and take a break from the issue for a couple of years."

A hearing on SB 301 before the Senate's Public and Municipal Affairs Committee was held Jan. 22.

Gilmour said the committee is seeking an opinion on the legality of the bill before taking any further action on it.

If Weare rescinds SB2 on Tuesday, it would become only the second school system in New Hampshire to do so. Chester was the first, in March 2012.


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