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Bill would grant town meeting postponement power to secretary of state

State House Bureau

February 13. 2018 11:50PM
A large sign alerted Atkinson resident that there would be no voting at the Community Center last March when a snowstorm postponed town meeting, (GRETCHEN GROSKY/Union Leader File)

CONCORD — The secretary of state, not local officials, will have final say over whether local elections can be postponed because of weather if a bill that cleared a Senate committee on Tuesday becomes law.

The Senate Election Law Committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the full Senate with an ought-to-pass recommendation despite continued opposition by the N.H. Municipal Association, which calls SB 438 “the town meeting takeover bill.”

Municipal Association Executive Director Judy Silva said the organization that represents New Hampshire cities and towns would continue to oppose the measure in the House if it passes the Senate.

“There’s a fundamental difference in philosophy as to whether it should be a local decision or state decision,” she said after Tuesday’s vote. “There are also a number of problems with the language of the bill wreaking havoc with existing statutes regarding town meeting.”

The effort to clarify who gets to cancel town voting stems from last year’s blizzard on the second Tuesday in March, the traditional town voting day.

The storm threw municipal elections into chaos, as town moderators decided to postpone elections, the secretary of state said they could not, and the governor said towns would do so at their own risk.

A nearly year-long effort to settle the question has left both sides just as divided as when the debate began.

“One must ask why all this chaos and distortion of the town meeting process is necessary for a weather event that is likely to occur infrequently, if history is a guide,” according to a recent communication from the municipal association to its members.

Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, said the bipartisan compromise emerged from the work of a study committee over the summer.

Soucy and fellow Democratic Sen. Jeff Woodburn of Whitefield voted with the Republican majority on the election committee.

“One thing that became very clear is that we had no standards in law for postponement, so this legislation puts clear standards in place and requires consultation with the secretary of state,” she said. “I don’t think that’s unreasonable.”

Soucy said involving the secretary of state in the decision is the best way to ensure statewide consistency, especially among towns that share a common school district.

“Coordination of communication for postponements is important,” she said. “What we don’t want is neighboring towns doing different things.”

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