By Ben Velderman
TEMPLE, N.H. – For the ninth straight year, voters in the town of Temple, New Hampshire were asked if they wanted to exchange their annual town meeting for a more modern system of voting on school budgets, labor union contracts and taxes.
And for the ninth straight year, Temple voters said “no,” reports The New Hampshire Union Leader. They cherish their direct influence over local government decisions, and they like the old-fashioned way of registering their views.
The town meeting is the purest form of democratic government – found mostly in New England states – in which registered voters come together as a legislative body once a year to debate and decide a variety of issues facing their towns.
Everyone gets a chance to share an opinion, ask a question or offer an amendment to the proposed laws (known as warrant articles), which means the meetings can last for hours.
Then they get the chance to vote on various issues, including school financial questions.
These folks aren’t interested in the way school boards and unions negotiate contracts in most of the nation – behind closed doors, with taxpayers not seeing the results until the deal is finalized. They want the final say on how their tax dollars are spent, and they’re not shy about nixing negotiated labor contracts.
A few weeks ago, Rollingsford, New Hampshire taxpayers rejected “the cost items included in the collective bargaining agreement reached between the Rollinsford School District and the (Rollingsford Education Association),” according to Foster’s Daily Democrat.
The agreement would have increased salaries and benefits for teacher union members.
Voters in the Pembroke, Northwood and Weare school districts also rejected teachers union collective bargaining agreements. In other districts tentative contracts were approved, according to the Concord Monitor.
“In any (town) meeting there are two groups who are presumed to dominate: teachers and others with a financial interest and supposedly curmudgeonly taxpayers,” Charles Arlinghaus, president of The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, tells EAGnews. “The truth is neither is dominant and it depends on the town and the season. Contracts are more likely to be rejected in bad economic times simply because sympathy runs dry. But most would describe results overall as mixed.”
A few voters keep an old tradition alive
The Town Meeting has been used on this continent since the 1600s – more than 100 years before the United States of America was officially formed. Some of the warrant articles voters debated in the earliest town meetings involved “whether or not to let pigs run free or whether smallpox vaccinations should be allowed in the town,” notes the Vermont Secretary of State website.
The concept of town meetings may strike outsiders as quaint and old-timey, but it’s serious business to New Englanders.
In Vermont, Town Meeting day is treated as a holiday. State law gives government employees the day off, and allows private sector workers to take a day of unpaid leave to tend to their town’s affairs.
Town meetings are also treated as a social event for the community, but tempers can flare when controversial issues are debated. Moderators occasionally have to remind participants to be polite and courteous to their fellow voters.
“That means refraining from booing a speaker or even applauding,” notes EagleTribune.com.
To keep things civil, one New Hampshire town moderator “instituted a rule that requires residents to address one another as ‘my good neighbor,’” the news site reports.
Meeting days may seem like an ideal scenario for taxpayers to scrutinize all the work requirements, pay schedules and various other goodies that are written into teacher union contracts and other labor pacts. Unfortunately a small percentage of voters still take advantage of that opportunity in New Hampshire, Arlinghaus said.
“The turnout for a town meeting is really low, maybe 10 to 15 percent,” Arlinghaus says. “A small group of people tend to make the decisions. And it’s the individuals who are most interested in a topic – or those with a vested interest – who turn out.”
Old format on the wane in NH
Eighteen years ago, New Hampshire state lawmakers passed a law – Senate Bill 2 – that allows towns to modernize the meeting process and accommodate modern, go-go lifestyles that don’t allow for lengthy town meetings.
If a three-fifths majority of its voters agree, New Hampshire towns can switch to the SB 2 format, which breaks the town meeting into two parts.
The first part is the deliberative session, which is held in January or February. These sessions have all the discussion and debating of a traditional town meeting, but without the voting. Warrant articles can only be amended during a deliberative session, giving attendees significant power to shape the final vote.
The public vote – part two of SB 2 process – occurs a month or two after deliberation. Residents can cast ballots any time during the day. As a result, voting becomes a 15-minute process instead of a three-hour ordeal. That’s a major reason why SB 2 towns enjoy a higher voter turnout, usually 20 to 25 percent.
According to Arlinghaus, the bigger the voter turnout, the less likely a town’s new spending proposals and other “big ticket items” are to pass.
“That’s why teacher unions generally oppose SB 2, and why taxpayer groups tend to favor it,” he says, adding that SB 2 has had “mixed” results in actually curtailing government spending.
New Hampshire residents seem to be embracing the new approach to governing, especially those in larger communities.
“More than 65 towns and around 80 school districts operate under SB 2,” reports UnionLeader.com.
Critics say the SB 2 approach cheapens the entire democratic enterprise.
While warrant articles can only be amended during a deliberative session, many residents choose to ignore that first step and miss their chance to shape the debate. The New Hampshire Municipal Association’s study of 27 “SB 2” towns finds that only 2.4 percent of registered voters attend the deliberative sessions.
“That’s a significant hole in the system,” writes Steve Gilbert in a column for SentinelSource.com. “They’re entering the voting booth stone cold, trying to interpret what an article means for the town or school.”
A tiny handful of New Hampshire towns have reinstated the traditional town meeting after having experimented with SB 2. The trend, however, is toward the more modern approach of SB 2.
“About a third of New Hampshire residents live in a town with a traditional town meeting, another third under SB 2 rule and the remaining third in communities with a city council,” reports the Union Leader.
New Hampshire’s town meetings and deliberative sessions are done for the year. Towns using SB 2 have until the second Tuesday in May to hold their final votes.