Town meeting: clearing up some misconceptions

  • Town meeting: clearing up some misconceptions

Traditional towns still have a few weeks before their voters debate and decide warrant articles, but official ballot towns — also known as SB2 towns — are knee-deep in deliberative sessions.

And with the annual legislative gatherings, common questions and misconceptions bubble to the surface.

Margaret M.L. Byrnes is the executive director of the N.H. Municipal Association, a nonprofit organization offering lobbying services and training sessions to member municipalities, including workshops for moderators.

All the legalese aside, she said town and school district meetings present an opportunity to participate in an accessible direct democracy.

“If you want to sort of have a voice in the process, you can. It is a legislative body, and I think that’s really important,” Byrnes said.

What are the

moderator’s duties?

Chapter 40 in New Hampshire law covers the government of town meeting, which also includes school district meetings. That statute says the moderator presides over town meetings, decides questions of order and announces the result of every vote.

Typically, moderators establish their own set of rules for managing a meeting, including how voters will speak, vote and make motions, Byrnes explained. Meetings can vary in structure from town to town, depending on the moderator.

Keeping order during a meeting is a critical role of moderators, Byrnes said. State statute gives them the power to have someone forcibly removed by law enforcement if there’s a disturbance.

Another section of the law is intended to quash running debates at town meetings. Everyone is required to speak through the moderator, and anyone who speaks out of turn can be levied a whopping $1 fine per offense, “for the use of the town.”

“It’s so funny, you know, you picture this, like, jar. This debate jar,” Byrnes said, laughing. “… And I don’t think any moderator does this, you know.”

While she doesn’t encourage moderators to start collecting money from voters, she said she brings up that section of the law during moderator training sessions as a silly but real example of their duties.

“It sort of reminds moderators, and voters, that the moderator does have a very clear responsibility to run an orderly meeting,” she said. “So everybody can’t just yell over one another or yell at each other. There has to be some order.”

How much discretion does a moderator have?

“This is one of sort of the cool things about town meeting is that, first and foremost, the town meeting is a legislative body,” Byrnes said. “So the moderator’s job is to run the meeting, but it is a meeting that belongs to the legislative body.”

While moderators aren’t given many restrictions in state statute, the law says their rules “may be altered by the town.” Byrnes explained that the town meeting can vote to overrule any declaration made by the moderator, and there’s no special procedure required — all it takes is a motion, a second and a simple majority vote.

Byrnes also said there are some actions moderators generally shouldn’t take, such as redoing votes. If a voice vote is too close to call, a moderator can call for a show of hands or an official headcount, but Byrnes said completely scrapping a vote isn’t advised.

“… The rule is the vote happens, and if you can tell how the vote came out, that’s the vote,” she said.

The town meeting, not the moderator, has the authority to reconsider a vote or to challenge it by insisting on a different voting method.

Can voters in SB2 towns change the intent of

warrant articles?

One of the most common misconceptions regards the extent to which an article may be amended, Byrnes said. She said clarification came from the N.H. Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Harriet E. Cady v. Town of Deerfield, which determined that a town meeting can’t change an article’s subject matter, but the group is free to edit its intent or effect.

“If I’m a voter and I read the warrant, I’m supposed to tell what subjects we’re going to be discussing and acting upon at the town meeting, and I can make a judgement call about whether I care about those subjects and topics,” Byrnes said.

The dollar amount of an article seeking to raise or appropriate funds can be changed, for example, and the wording can also be adjusted.

So voters can make fairly substantial changes to articles as long as they don’t change the subject matter, she said.

In an SB2 town, can you vote against putting an article on the ballot?

For towns that adopt SB2, state law says “all warrant articles shall be placed on the official ballot for a final vote, including warrant articles as amended by the first session.”

That means that there’s no need to make a motion to place an article on the warrant in a deliberative session, or to vote to do so, since it’s mandated by law.

Byrnes acknowledged that some moderators choose to call for a vote to send articles to the warrant for a sense of finality, particularly in towns that have more recently transitioned to an SB2 format.

But residents can’t vote against putting an article on the ballot, she said. Even if a moderator called for such a vote and it failed, Byrnes said the clerk or selectmen would have to put the article on the ballot regardless.

What amendments can voters make to petitioned warrant articles?

Byrnes explained that, under state law, petitioned warrant articles don’t receive any special privileges in terms of amendments. The process gives voters the ability to bring forth articles, but it doesn’t allow anyone to dodge the legislative process.

To submit a petitioned warrant article, residents must gather 25 or more signatures, or 2 percent of the town or district’s electorate, whichever is less.

The Cady v. Deerfield case involved two petitioned articles that were amended at the deliberative session to heavily edit and slant the wording, much to the dismay of the petitioner.

“It’s not about that one group of individuals who want that article to pass. It’s about the will of the meeting,” she said.

What does it mean to

restrict reconsideration of an article?

At many town or school district meetings, one resident will make the same motion after every article is discussed: to restrict reconsideration. The idea here is to close discussion of the article and prevent it being reopened later in the meeting, Byrnes said.

But she noted that that’s not necessarily the case.

If a motion to restrict reconsideration passes during an SB2 town’s deliberative session, Byrnes said that’s final. The article is closed and will go to the ballot with no further discussion or changes.

There’s a little more leeway in traditional town meetings. If a successful motion to restrict reconsideration was made, someone can still make a motion to reconsider a restricted article later in the meeting. If the body approves the motion, the article can be reopened for discussion, amendments and voting.

“But the catch is that they will have to come back to an adjourned session of the meeting held seven days later,” Byrnes said.

If no one makes motions to restrict reconsideration, voters may return to articles later in the meeting for further discussion or to propose amendments.

Byrnes clarified that there’s a difference between reconsidering an article and questioning a vote, which requires seven voters to request a do-over by secret ballot. The voters can make their request orally, she added.

And that’s different than initially requesting a secret ballot vote, which necessitates five written requests from voters. Towns with a population smaller than 500 need only three voters.

Are recommendations on the warrant considered campaigning at the

polling place?

New Hampshire laws include several prohibitions on electioneering at the polls. Unattended signs can’t be installed on public property, and a new provision added in 2016 forbids voters from wearing stickers, pins or campaign apparel at the polls.

Some voters have questioned whether recommendations by selectmen or a school board constitute campaigning and thus violate those laws.

Byrnes argued that it doesn’t conflict for a number reasons. State statute requires recommendations on a “special warrant article,” which proposes appropriating funds and checks at least one of the following boxes:

It was submitted by petition.

It calls for the issuance of notes or bonds.

It seeks to reallocate money to a capital reserve or trust fund.

It’s any other appropriation labeled by the governing body as special, non-transferable or non-lapsing.

It’s a broad definition, and Byrnes said the state Supreme Court has determined that selectmen or a school board may put its recommendation on any other warrant article, at its discretion.

The town meeting can vote to require notations and recommendations on all articles, she added, but it’s only required by law for special articles.

Aside from the mandate for many articles, Byrnes asserted that recommendations from a governing body don’t equate to campaigning, partially because town meeting is an open legislative session.

“It’s not closed and individual like the polling place is, right. It’s not as secretive as the polling place,” she said.

Debates and arguments are part of that legislative process in those sessions, in which residents can state their case openly to other voters and try to persuade the meeting, she said.

Byrnes also pointed out that the recommendations come from selectmen, budget committees or school boards in their official capacity, rather than as personal political preferences.

Sierra Hubbard can be reached at 355-8546 or at shubbard@keenesentinel.com.