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February 18. 2014 9:12PM

Moves to dump SB2, go back to annual meeting divides Deerfield

DEERFIELD — For more than 65 years, Joanne Wasson has steadfastly voted in every Deerfield election.

The lifelong resident, who turns 89 this year, said she’ll be deprived the opportunity to continue exercising her democratic right to vote if Article 10 on the town warrant and Article 5 on the school district warrant are approved March 11.

The articles, supported unanimously by school board members and by four of five selectmen, call for Senate Bill 2 (SB2) to be rescinded. The moves would transition Deerfield voting back to a traditional Town Meeting and School District Meeting formats for all articles, with the exception of the election of officers and other special articles.

“If you look at the history of voting in our country, those who are allowed and able to vote have constantly changed. At one time, it was only men who were landowners, and then it was just men, and then women were allowed to vote, and then minorities, and with each change more people are able to vote, and that’s the way it should be, and Senate Bill 2 is the logical next step on the local level because people are no longer going to Town Meeting,” said Wasson, a three-time former Deerfield selectman who now serves as the town’s historian.

“It used to be people had Saturday off and went to Town Meeting. It was a thing to do on a Saturday afternoon,” she continued. “When I was young, lots of people went, but over the years, our population has increased and increased and increased, and yet the number of people going to Town Meeting was decreasing. It’s a thing of the past. It’s for those traveling by horse and buggy.”

Moreover, Wasson said age and health issues would prevent her and others with health problems, work and other obligations from attending Town Meeting.

Deerfield Board of Selectmen Chairman Stephen R. Barry, who first proposed the article for this year’s town warrant, said he sympathizes with Wasson and others in her position, but stands by his support of Town Meeting.

“I feel for the people in that situation. I understand where they are coming from, but government was never meant to be easy. It was meant to be a responsibility,” he said. “There were a number of times I was scheduled to work and took the day off because they were spending my money and I wanted my say.”

Barry opposed the transition to SB2 when it was approved in 2005, and he says his reasoning hasn’t changed.

“I feel like there’s a disconnect. I mean, maybe one or two people show up to our selectmen meetings and approximately 85 people show up at our deliberative sessions, and the bottom line is we’re not getting the input we need to operate and do our jobs by the will of the people,” he said. “I came from Long Island, N.Y., and moved to New Hampshire to live in the country and bring my children up here, and when I went into my first town meeting in 1985 and realized I could actually speak my mind, state my case and argue against something I didn’t like, well, I thought it was the greatest thing. SB2 just makes it easy for everyone. This isn’t suppose to be easy. It’s your responsibility as a taxpayer and a citizen.”

Not everyone is convinced the traditional format is the answer, however.

“Senate Bill 2 may not be the answer to our dreams, but it did triple the amount of people voting,” said Wasson, who noted that the number of attendees at the 2005 Town Meeting was 339. In 2006, the first year of SB2 in Deerfield, 1,313 residents cast their ballots.

“What it comes down to is that less than 400 (of roughly 3,200 registered voters) were making the decisions on all the important things.”

Alan O’Neil, vice chairman on the Board of Selectmen, was the lone voice of opposition on the initiative to transition back to traditional Town Meeting.

“I am definitely a proponent of SB2, mainly because of the sheer number of voters who have shown up to vote,” he said. “In 2005, 25 people brought SB2 to the warrant by petition article, and if they want to rescind it, I believe 25 people should bring it now, not five individuals on a board.”

Even if all 1,251 voters from 2013 showed up at Town Meeting, O’Neil pointed out that town officials would have no place to put them.

“We don’t have a facility in town that can hold that many voters. We can hold 600 in the gymnasium and then another 200 in the cafeteria. That means the maximum we could hold in a two-room facility is 800 people,” said O’Neil.

“If we can’t even house 50 percent of our voters, I don’t see how we can justify going back to (traditional) Town Meeting,” he added. “The outhouse had its time and purpose, and so did Town Meeting, but technology has advanced and so has voting.”

A public hearing on the proposed warrant articles, which was originally scheduled for last night, was cancelled due to the snow storm. It has been rescheduled for Monday, Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. at the Deerfield Town Offices.

roconnor@newstote.com


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