Thursday, January 29, 1998

N.H., save your town meetings


Towns are deciding things at the ballot box that used to be decided at town and school district meetings.


It has made governing very difficult.

A year ago, many New Hampshire voters gutted their town and school district meetings in favor of doing everything in the voting booth. There they could do in privacy what is uncomfortable to do in public, vote against aggravations that raise their taxes.

Plus, they could vote on their own schedule without listening to people reciting the pros and cons of the school budget for hours.

Senate Bill 2 permitted voters to turn their town and school district meetings into deliberative sessions. With the property-tax backlash that has swept across New Hampshire, it was not surprising that so many chose to. Now the issue is whether to go back to the traditional form of town and school district meeting, where things were actually decided. That is a good idea, in our opinion.

For starters, Senate Bill 2 was a cowardly way out for a state legislature that was unprepared to offer real tax relief. But mostly, Senate Bill 2 just made governing very difficult. Some examples:

In the Sanborn school district, schools are strapped after voters nixed the school budget at the polls. They nixed it again when special education costs went out of sight. Now Sanborn educators worry about how next year's budget will fare when voters deal with it at the polls in Newton and Kingston on March 10 - probably having skipping next Thursday's deliberative school district meeting.

Plaistow began a 3-year program to bring property tax assessments into line. Town Meeting paid for the first year, then Senate Bill 2 took hold and voters at the polls balked at paying for the second year. But instead of saving money, they were forcing the town into passing tax abatements like candy.

Atkinson voters were affected by sticker shock and nixed a new town garage and designs for a fire station and library addition - even though the money to pay for them was sitting in a surplus account.

The old form of town meeting had its problems -teachers and town employees got their way a lot. But that sometimes bloody, sometimes boring battleground was better than the anonymity of the voting booth.

Atkinson selectmen and Finance Committee members are supporting a rollback of Senate Bill 2 in their town on March 10. Similar rollbacks will be discussed at deliberative town and school district meetings in other towns over the next 10 days.

We think voters should be done with Senate Bill 2 and go back to the direct democracy that worked passably well for a couple of hundred years here.

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