Hanover May Change Its Vote Format

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/4/2018 12:13:20 AM
Modified: 4/4/2018 12:13:25 AM

Hanover voters may cast their Town Meeting ballots from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 8, in the Hanover High School gym. The floor meeting will follow at 7 p.m. in the same location.

Hanover — Hanover voters next month will consider whether to become an “SB2” town, a designation that splits the traditional Town Meeting format into a deliberative session and a day of balloted voting.

Proponents of the idea say it will allow more residents to decide on the municipal budget, which voters now address during the annual floor meeting. That arrangement makes it harder for some people to attend, including those with young families, work conflicts or nighttime transportation issues, the advocates say.

“It’s striking that so many residents come to the Hanover High gym to vote on Selectboard members and zoning amendments, but on the item that most affects their pocketbooks year in and year out, many members of our community are effectively excluded,” said Daryl Press, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College who helped bring the petitioned article to the warrant.

Whereas nearly a thousand people cast ballots in 2016, only about 160 voted at that year’s floor meeting. The town has about 8,000 registered voters. (Last year’s Town Meeting, where a controversial student-driven zoning amendment drove many to the polls, may not be a representative sample for turnout.)

Also on the Town Meeting warrant are $28.3 million in spending articles, including the operational budget and outside requests, and a slate of zoning amendments that include a proposal to allow more kinds of solar installations across town. The spending plan is projected to lead to a 2.4 percent increase in the municipal property tax rate.

The SB2 format is named after a New Hampshire law from 1995 that allows communities to consider budgets and warrant articles during a deliberative session where residents can propose amendments. Later, the voters cast ballots on all warrant items as approved at the deliberative session.

At least 70 communities across the state followed SB2 at the end of 2017, according to the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration. Upper Valley towns that use the SB2 format include Canaan, Grafton, Newport and Sunapee.

Town Manager Julia Griffin expressed concern that the measure could create procedural complications for town leaders and voters. Town officials may trigger additional meetings or townwide votes based on the results of deliberative sessions, she said, which could lead to confusion among residents about what they’re voting on and whether the matter is settled or not.

Griffin also said that small groups of motivated voters could “hijack” deliberative sessions to change warrant articles, perhaps in order to reduce government spending.

In the towns that have adopted SB2, she said, there is “a much more significant propensity for budgets to be defeated, for bond votes to be zeroed out,” and for communities to find themselves scheduling more votes on fallback budget proposals.

The Selectboard on Monday night gave its support to all items on the warrant except for the SB2 request, which it unanimously declined to endorse. Per New Hampshire law, the article to adopt SB2 requires a three-fifths majority vote to succeed.

Hanover-Norwich schools already function in a “quasi” SB2 manner, Griffin said, with residents voting on the constituent districts’ budgets by ballot, rather than at a floor meeting.

One of the SB2 proponents, former Hanover Finance Committee member John Ruth, raised concerns about cost increases during the 2016 Town Meeting, moving unsuccessfully to level-fund the budget.

This year’s spending plan, including the operating budget and capital projects funded by reserves, is proposed at $28.3 million — a 7.3 percent gross increase. Taking the average across the town’s fire districts, that’s estimated to lead to a 16-cent increase per $1,000 of valuation on the municipal property tax rate, or about $64 more on a $400,000 house.

Ruth said his push for spending frugality wasn’t related to the SB2 request, however.

“My views on town spending are a matter of public record, but that’s not what this is about,” Ruth said in an interview on Tuesday. But he did remember noticing during those floor meetings that “there’s hardly anyone here.”

Griffin acknowledged that attendance at the floor portion of Town Meeting was consistently low, raising questions about the future of the centuries-old New England style of governance.

“Is it a dying tradition?” she asked.

In balloted voting next month, residents will decide on five zoning amendments and a handful of uncontested elections.

Among the proposed zoning changes, most of them minor, is an article that would allow ground-mounted solar installations as an “accessory use” in all districts, except for nature preserves, and as a “principal use” by special exception in certain more rural, industrial or business-oriented areas of town.

Planning and Zoning Director Rob Houseman said the measure had support from the Sustainable Hanover Committee as part of its “Ready for 100” campaign, a goal adopted at Town Meeting last year to obtain 100 percent of the town’s energy from renewable sources by 2050.

Joanna Whitcomb and Nancy Carter are running unopposed for re-election to the Selectboard.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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