Grafton Meeting Gets Testy
Ed Grinley, the Chairman of the Grafton Budget Committee, laughs as Grafton residents argue with each other over whether the meetin should be postponed during the Grafton deliberative session at the Grafton Fire Department in Grafton, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2014. "This meeting gets more entertaining every year," Grinley said about the session, which can go for ten hours or more every year.
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Brian Fellers raises his voting card to argue about an unregistered voter he believed should be able to vote at the Grafton Fire Department in Grafton, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2014. Fellers was soon after escorted out of the building and arrested by Grafton Police for disorderly conduct. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
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Grafton — Grafton kicked off its Town Meeting season by having the chairman of its Planning Board escorted out of Saturday’s deliberative session by police.
Brian Fellers, who has been a member of the Planning Board since at least 2006 and chairman since at least 2011, began the meeting by questioning the “Rules of Decorum,” which the moderator, Susan Frost, had distributed to all in attendance.
The rules prohibit cursing, name calling and personal attacks against people or their motives, and give the moderator the authority to ask the police officer in attendance to remove from the building any person conducting himself or herself in a disorderly manner.
Fellers said he didn’t like the idea that he could be kicked out of the meeting for what he had to say, and said he thought the rules were a violation of his First Amendment rights.
A motion was soon made to strike the rules of decorum. Frost warned voters to read them carefully.
From the back row, Pam Curran stood up and defended the rules.
“I think these are orders of respect,” Curran said. “I don’t know why we want to disrespect each other. If we eliminate this, there will be no respect.”
Ultimately, only a handful of people voted to strike the rules, and they stayed.
So did Fellers, for the moment.
Town Meeting is meant to bring voters close to their government and give them a direct say in town and school budgets. It’s a lesson in pure democracy. But as anyone who has been to a Town Meeting knows, there are moments of boredom, frustration and times when it feels like the meeting is just dragging on.
It’s safe to say that voters in Grafton on Saturday felt all of those emotions. It took an hour and 45 minutes of discussion before voters even began to address the warrant. By 2 p.m. — five hours after the meeting started — voters were only on Article 5 of 30.
Last year, the meeting started at 6 p.m. and adjourned at 12:45 a.m.
About a decade ago, the Free State Project, whose libertarian members lobby for smaller government, selected New Hampshire to settle in, and Grafton soon became the home to many “Free Staters.”
At last year’s deliberative session, Free Staters and their allies reduced Grafton’s proposed operating budget by more than $128,000, about a 10 percent cut. This year the Free Staters weren’t able to touch the operating budget, although they had plans to take a stab at it.
It’s not fair to blame the slow progress of Saturday’s deliberative session entirely on the Free Staters, but they didn’t help hurry the process along, either.
For almost two hours, the meeting debated two issues: a motion to strike the rules of decorum and whether one resident, Kevin Barlow, should be allowed to vote even though he didn’t have the proper paperwork. (Ultimately, a supervisor of the checklist said Barlow did not complete a voter registration form in time, and he was not allowed to vote.)
But during that discussion, in which Fellers argued to let Barlow vote, he interrupted other speakers several times. The moderator eventually asked him to leave. Fellers, who sports a long gray beard and a shaved head, was then escorted out by police.
He didn’t go quietly, singing, “God bless America, land that I love, stand beside her, and guide her … as someone gets escorted out.”
Some of the 100 or so voters in attendance clapped, and one woman chuckled after Fellers had left the building.
The budget discussion then went relatively quickly.
The Selectboard and Budget Committee informed the group that the $1.6 million operating budget on the warrant should be only $993,556. After some discussion, voters were asked to amend the budget to the new dollar amount, and they approved the proposed budget.
Afterward, several Free Staters, including Jeremy Olson, inquired about a motion that they had requested earlier, which was to go line by line through the budget. But they were told it was too late because the budget had already passed. A motion was made to reconsider the budget, but it failed 36-60, and the meeting moved on to the next article.
Olson said he was disappointed, especially because he and others had worked hard to plan how they would attempt to cut the proposed spending.
“It’s complete chaos in there,” Olson said referring to the budget vote. There were often several motions on the floor at once.
Olson had a stack of small slips of paper on which he had typed his motions so he could hand them to the moderator. One motion requested that the police budget be cut from $132,053 to $89,000. Another suggested cutting legal expenses by $5,000 and slashing the highway and street budget by nearly $34,000. One had a motion that would have reduced the budget by 9 percent, while another would have eliminated the streetlight budget.
Olson said he and other Free Staters probably wouldn’t have submitted all of the motions if they could have gone over the budget line by line, but they were prepared.
“It’s like a game of chess,” he said. “You have to plan all these moves out because you don’t know what they’re going to throw at you.”
When asked why he wants to cut the budget, Olson said simply, “lower taxes.”
Olson moved from Massachusetts to Manchester in 2007, and then to Grafton in 2010. He said the budget has been increasing each year. The Free State movement, he said, is all about reducing government.
“You shouldn’t be forced to pay for things you don’t want,” Olson said. “It’s democracy in action.”
This year, Olson said, there were a couple dozen residents who would vote “pro-liberty.” Compared with last year, however, there were more people at the meeting opposing, or at least not supporting, the Free State Project.
On the other side of the spectrum was Rich Blair, who wore a blue Obama-Biden button to the meeting. In an interview, he said he thinks the Free State Project is “trashing” the reputation of the town he’s lived in since 1985.
He said three people had come up to him before 1:30 p.m. to ask him not to leave, even if he got frustrated with the length of the meeting.
“People are staying because they want to fight (the Free State) movement,” Blair said.
Sue Jukosky had to leave the meeting after the budget vote, but she said she wished she could have stayed. Jukosky said she doesn’t usually come to the deliberative session because she said the town doesn’t do the best job letting residents know the date and time. But this year, she got a phone call the night before the meeting encouraging her to attend, and she said she wanted to be there because she didn’t want the budget to be “undermined.”
“I didn’t want people to come and cut the budget to pieces,” Jukosky said.
The meeting, which started at 9 a.m., lasted about 11 hours, but all the warrant articles “survived” and none were thrown out or changed dramatically, said Selectboard Chairman Steve Darrow.
Grafton residents have always been reluctant to spend money, Darrow said, but the Free Stater’s role last year in cutting the budget arbitrarily caused a larger turnout this year. The Free Staters were vocal, but they couldn’t control key votes.
“People wanted to show up to make sure what happened last year didn’t happen again,” Darrow said late Saturday night. “There was strong support from people who didn’t want the budget cut arbitrarily.”
Town Meeting is scheduled for March 11. Voting will be from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Grafton fire station.
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3223.