SB-2 form of government is not for Hollis and Brookline

Why do some want the SB-2 form of town meeting versus the traditional meeting? The benefits are always touted as allowing more people to vote on the town warrant articles, because voting is conducted on Election Day.

This is definitely a benefit. But, what is it that people can vote on? There is no negotiation or change, but only a yes or no vote on what is on the ballot. If the vote is no, the issue is dead; no opportunity to modify it so it is acceptable. If the deliberative session, held in early February when the weather is often worse than the March Election Day was well attended, things might be different. But, history of the past 22-plus years has shown us that about 10 percent of the voters who traditionally attended the town meeting show up for the deliberative session. Why should they, some say? We get to vote on all the articles on Election Day. But what you get to vote on has been decided by the few who attended the deliberative session.

One year, in Mont Vernon, ONE person showed up for deliberative session and decided on what the entire town was going to see on the ballot on Election Day. Is that representation? We often worry about a special interest group coming to the town meeting to sway an issue. SB-2 makes it so much easier for that to happen. A New Hampshire Municipal Association spokesperson once said; “There is more legislation filed every year to change or alter parts of SB-2 than almost any statute that we would follow over at the State House.”

I can vouch for that as the chairman of the Municipal & County Government Committee at the New Hampshrie Legislature. This year, not counting the Senate, the House has four bills dealing with how to determine a “default budget.” What is a default budget? It is the budget you get to live with “in case” the regular budget is voted down at the polls on Election Day. What is it that you can do at Deliberative Session that you can’t do at regular town meeting?

Deliberative sessions in Candia underscored what some believe to be a big flaw in the SB-2 form of government. Both sessions drew few voters. At one, a proposal to pay for the closure of the town’s incinerator site was amended from $100,000 to $1. At a school district deliberative session, a petition warrant to reduce kindergarten from a full-day session to a half-day session was amended to include language indicating that the warrant was “advisory” and “non-binding.” Was that the intent of the petitioners? Would this have happened at a well-attended traditional town meeting? How did the town fix the incinerator problem with $1 and no opportunity to find an alternative?

But, those examples are not the items that continue to plague the SB-2 form of town meetings. It is the budget that is the biggest problem. The budget is set at the deliberative session with a handful of people in attendance. A default budget is then set in case the regular budget does not pass on Election Day. The default budget is often greater than the rejected budget. On Election Day, you cannot ask questions, no explanations are offered, no opportunity to make changes are available. Vote yes or no, that’s it! Vote no and you get the default, which mirrors last year’s budget. As chairman of the Municipal & County Government Committee at the New Hampshire Legislature, I see first-hand the attempts to remedy the issues with SB-2. There are currently (2018) four bills in the New Hampshire Legislature dealing with SB-2 budgets and there were four last year (2017). It still isn’t “fixed.” Over the past 20 years, the New Hampshire Legislature has had close to 54 bills to “fix” SB-2. This legislative biennium, one bill would have you vote on two budgets on the ballot; one regular and one default. If both fail, you hold a traditional town meeting the next week and establish a budget. If you are a New Englander and want to maintain New England town meeting traditions, vote down SB-2. We have noted NO on it for at least three years. When will folks understand that NO means NO!

If you are truly dissatisfied with the way your town and/or school district is governed and you feel the SB-2 version is the only option, you should look into a charter form of local government. Folks who vote in SB-2 are happy with it for the first couple years and then reality sets in and they can’t get out of it because it took a majority to get in but a super majority to get out.

Here are examples of attendance at the deliberative session in towns where SB-2 was adopted in past years. Amherst had 8,840 registered voters and 167 attended the deliberative session (2 perceent). Milford had 10,894 registered voters with 83 attending (1 percent). Hudson had 16,305 registered voters with 72 attending (0 percent). While 65 New Hampshire communities had adopted SB-2 form of government, 34 of them attempted to repeal it after they found out how undemocratic it was. Sixty-six New Hampshire towns were faced with adopting SB-2 where it failed as it has for the past three years in Hollis-Brookline Cooperative School District.

If you want 1 percent of the district’s voters to tell you what you will vote on with no chance to express an opinion, SB-2 may be for you. If you want to be a New Englander and participate in the New England representative deliberative town meeting form of government, vote NO on the SB-2 article on the Hollis-Brookline Cooperative School District Warrant at the March 2018 elections. This has been brought up several times in Hollis and Brookline and turned down. How often do we need to say No?

Jim Belanger is the Hollis town moderator and a New Hampshire state representative.