SB2 - Issue Summary

How is SB2 changing your town?

Issue Facts

By: Bob Cassasa
This issue has been updated by LFDA editors.

Adopted in 1995, pursuant to RSA 40:13 any town, school district or cooperative school district that raises and appropriates funds at an annual meeting can adopt a process whereby all warrant articles are given their final vote by official ballot.

If this approach is adopted, the annual town meeting will consist of two sessions:

First Session

At the first session – the deliberative session – (often held in late January/early February) participants have the opportunity to discuss, debate, and possibly amend the articles on the warrant. The purpose of the first session is to determine the wording of the articles, the final form of ballot questions.  While the wording of some warrant articles may not be amended (e.g. zoning articles) the general rule is that all other warrant articles are subject to amendment. For example, an appropriation article could be amended down from $250,000.00 to $0. The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that deleting all language from a warrant article except the words “To see…” was permissible (Grant v. Barrington 156 NH 807 (2008)).

Second Session

Typically held the second Tuesday in March, the second session consists of the election of town/school officers (Selectmen, School Board) and final action on all articles as they emerged from the deliberative session. The voting is conducted by written ballot without further discussion, debate or amendment. The voter has the power to say “yes” or “no” to what the first session did, but not to alter it.

 The most significant vote at this session relates to the proposed town budget, which has been prepared by the town’s governing body and may or may not have been amended at the first session. The voters must choose between this proposed budget and a “default” budget which is determined by a formula and is automatically enacted if the proposed budget fails to receive a majority vote.

The “default budget” is defined by RSA 40: 13 IX (b), as follows: Default budget as used in this subdivision means the amount of the same appropriations as contained in the operating budget authorized for the previous year, reduced and increased, as the case may be, by debt service, contracts, and other obligations previously incurred or mandated by law, and reduced by one-time expenditures contained in the operating budget. For the purposes of this paragraph, one-time expenditures shall be appropriations not likely to recur in the succeeding budget, as determined by the governing body, unless the provisions of RSA 40:14-b are adopted, of the local political subdivision.”

NH Towns Still Split On SB2

A number of communities have repealed or tried to repeal SB2 since the time they adopted it. Here's a list from the state Department of Revenue Administration of towns that adopted SB2 and whether they've repealed it.

Supporters of SB2 argue that it is more convenient for voters to attend the polls than to schedule attendance at a long town meeting.  In a statement David Cedarholm, founder of the Lee Citizens Alliance, said "Town Meeting should not require a survivor level of energy that requires participants to ‘outwit, outplay, and outlast’ in order to participate in the basic democratic process."

Opponents of SB2 counter that without participating in a meeting, most voters are ignorant about the details of the budget that appears on the ballot.  Similarly, low attendance at deliberative sessions can allow small groups to "hijack" the final budget.

2014 Legislation

In 2014 Sen. Peggy Gilmour (D-Hollis) sponsored SB 301, a bill that would allow towns to put a two-year ban on petitions to either adopt or repeal SB2 procedures, provided that such a petition has failed two years in a row.  The Senate killed that bill in February 2014.

2013 Legislation

Some attempts were launched to amend, or undercut, SB2 in the 2013 legislative session.  Chief among them was HB 280, which limited changes to petitioned warrant articles during the deliberative session in SB2 towns. The House killed that bill on Feb. 20, 2013.

Another 2013 bill, HB 460, would allow a town's default budget to be increased by no more than 10 percent at town's deliberative session. Currently, the budget, once approved by voters, cannot be amended. HB 460 died in the House.

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Pros

Pro Issue Opinion by Bob Casassa, in favor of towns adopting SB2:

 

A  minority of voters can control the town meeting:

  • The town meeting approves the town budget and warrant articles at a day-long town meeting where only a couple hundred votes are cast and there is the potential that a special interest group pushing their own  issues and agendas could take control of ballot and budget issues.

The official ballot is more democratic:

  • With the official ballot voters have time to think about the issues on the ballot, after hearing the arguments at a deliberative session. Under the town meeting format you are forced to make an immediate decision without thinking about the consequences of the vote. Also, the voting takes place in the privacy of the voting booth without the pressure of fellow citizens.

The official ballot allows for more time to consider/research issues before voting:

  • Official ballot voting at the second session allows more citizens to participate in the democratic process. In order to vote at the town meeting, you need to have the time and energy to stay for a whole day. For citizens with young children, or elderly citizens, this detracts from people attending town meetings.
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Cons

Con Issue Opinion by Sally Humer, against towns adopting SB2:

 

Loss of resident interest and poor attendance at the deliberative session:

  • Because the voting power at the deliberative session, the first meeting,  is not final, the meeting is considered lacking in importance. Data from towns that have SB-2 show a marked reduction in meeting attendance. In many cases the small number of attendees means the quality of the debate is poor and they tend to go along with the recommendations of the governing body. 

Loss of control over town budget:

  • People who are interested in controlling  their town budget — the most important matter facing voters — and  who failed to attend the deliberative session  find that they have become disenfranchised. When they  go to vote there are two choices, either vote for the proposed budget that in their view may be too high or a "default budget" that may be even higher, or the difference between the two is insignificant, which is not a true vote.

Long drawn out process- and uninformed voters:

  • Final voting action is so far removed from whatever debate or discussion that took place at the deliberative session, people can lose track of what was discussed at the first meeting. And most voters do not attend the deliberative session at all. The result can be legions of confused and uninformed voters.

Additional costs when SB-2 is added:

  • The conversion to SB-2 requires an investment by the participating town. Many  residents in SB-2 towns say that electronic voting machines are very important. The size of the ballot increases and becomes difficult to manage.

Special interest groups can overwhelm town budgets to get their way:

  • Towns need to budget for websites, newsletters and other media in order to get information out to the public prior to the voting session. On some issues special interest groups will spend the most money to get resident votes.

Not necessary to change to SB-2 to garner its advantages:

  • A town does not need to have SB-2 to put warrant articles on the official ballot. This objective is sometimes given as to why SB2 should be adopted.  All voters have to do is adopt a town charter which puts in place whatever voting rules or procedures they find desirable for their town. Many NH towns have such a charter.

 

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SB2 Member Posts
Take Action

If you are interested in SB2 and want to take action here are some choices:

  • Contact one of the organizations listed in Learn More. These groups represent the pro or con positions of issues.
  • Contact a government official as follows:

1. Contact members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives or the New Hampshire Senate.

2. Contact the Committee chairperson or members of the House Municipal and County Committee or the Senate Public and Municipal Committee – these are the committees that oversee this issue.

3. Contact the New Hampshire Secretary of State.

4. Give your opinion to Governor Maggie Hassan

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Learn More/Take Action

How is SB2 changing your town? Whatever your thoughts are, we urge you to make your voice heard. See the "Learn More/Take Action" section on this page for more information.

Issue Status

In 2014 Sen. Peggy Gilmour (D-Hollis) sponsored SB 301, a bill that would allow towns to put a two-year ban on petitions to either adopt or repeal SB2 procedures, provided that such a petition has failed two years in a row.  The Senate killed that bill in February 2014.

SB2 is being debated in towns across New Hampshire. The vote to change your town’s governing process usually takes place in the spring. 

News

March 27, 2014
Foster's Daily Democrat: New Durham accepts SB2 form of Town Meeting
March 14, 2014
Seacoast Online: Brentwood rejects bid for SB2 government
March 12, 2014
Union Leader: Temple won’t be using SB2 form of balloting
Union Leader: SB2 wins again in Deerfield, but operating budget fails
Foster's Daily Democrat: SB2 approval ends annual New Durham Town Meeting
March 11, 2014
Union Leader: Madison voters reject SB2 again
Union Leader: Brentwood narrowly rejects SB2
Union Leader: East Kingston votes to keep SB2 voting; Poelaer defeats Ingham for selectman
March 10, 2014
Union Leader: For New Hampshire towns, it’s time to vote
March 9, 2014
Concord Monitor: Voters to weigh in on debate between SB 2, traditional town meeting
February 25, 2014
Union Leader: SB2 proponents outnumbered at Deerfield public hearing
February 19, 2014
Union Leader: Moves to dump SB2, go back to annual meeting divides Deerfield
February 18, 2014
New Hampshire Magazine: Town Meeting and other New Hampshire relics
February 1, 2014
Union Leader: Weare joins long list of towns rethinking SB2
Seacoast Online: Greenland to deliberate school budget, SB2 voting
July 3, 2013
Union Leader: Storyteller Rebecca Rule attends to history of town meeting
May 15, 2013
Citizen of Laconia: SB2 voted down for 13th time in Sanbornton
May 14, 2013

Union Leader: Sanbornton voters say no to SB 2
May 9, 2013
Citizen of Laconia: Pro SB2 signs concern Sanborton residents
April 9, 2013
Conway Daily Sun: Taking stock of SB 2: Is the so-called ballot law working?
March 13, 2013
Keene Sentinel: SB 2 system has its share of flaws
February 16, 2013

Union Leader: Years later, SB2 still spurs debate
January 27, 2013
Eagle Tribune: N.H. gets ready for Town Meeting
March 12, 2010
Foster's Daily Democrat:Time for SB2? Some Lee residents think annual multi-day meeting needs change
May 13, 2009
Laconia Citizen: SB2 move defeated again
March 09, 2009

NHPR: Town Meetings in Tough Times