EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 5, 2013

Deliberative sessions see poor attendance

In Derry, less than half of 1 percent add $800,000 to budget

By Alex Lippa
alippa@eagletribune.com

---- — Just 83 of Derry’s 17,789 registered voters made a pretty big decision Saturday.

Voters who showed up for the school district’s deliberative session decided to restore $800,000 to the proposed school budget. That was less than one-half of 1 percent of all voters.

The numbers weren’t much better at the seven towns that held deliberative sessions Saturday. Danville led the pack with 2 percent of the town’s voters showing up at the annual meeting. The rest fell well below that.

Some blame burnout following the presidential election in November. Others say people are unwilling to give up part of their weekend for something as dry as a dissection of a budget proposal.

But few officials are happy with the turnout.

“I was surprised at the outcome of the voters,” Derry School Board Chairman Brenda Willis said yesterday. “It’s hard to say what would have happened if more people had come out and vote.”

Willis said she believes residents need to make time to familiarize themselves with any budget.

“I think people should pay attention as the budget process begins to unfold,” she said. “We have a public hearing in January where people get a chance to ask questions about what is happening.”

At a deliberative session, voters can change the wording of and dollar amount in proposed warrant articles before they head to the March ballot.

But some believe voters would rather just head to the voting booth.

Salem Selectman Stephen Campbell said he thinks voters tend to wait until Town Meeting to make their voices be heard.

“On an average year, we might have 4,000 people vote,” Campbell said. “That’s more representative of the people of Salem and what they want done.”

Only 0.65 percent of registered voters showed up at the deliberative session in Salem Saturday. This year was the first year in which Salem held only one session after voters abolished a post-Town Meeting deliberative session last March.

The low attendance numbers lead Southern New Hampshire University political science professor Dean Spiliotes to believe deliberative sessions may be a thing of the past.

“It just doesn’t seem to work as much as it once used to,” Spiliotes said. “Eventually, I think this could be more virtual. I know political scientists are working on Internet voting and how to use the Internet as an arena for a virtual town hall.”

Getting people to attend a meeting on a Saturday morning isn’t easy.

“People are busy on weekends,” Campbell said. “They just don’t have time or aren’t making the time to go to a deliberative session.”

Only 1.1 percent of registered voters went to Atkinson Academy Saturday morning for that town’s session, a number that surprised Selectmen’s Chairman Fred Childs.

“This year is the most disappointing I’ve ever seen it,” Childs said. “This is where voters get a chance to turn things around. Each year the number keeps decreasing.”

Other low turnouts included 0.67 percent in Plaistow and 0.94 percent in Newton. Kingston and Sandown had less than 2 percent of their registered voters attend.

Windham will be holding its town deliberative session Saturday. Town Administrator David Sullivan is not expecting a big crowd.

“It should be anywhere between 50 to 75 people,” Sullivan said. “The only time we have more than 100 people there is if something controversial is on the warrant.”

Spiliotes said it makes sense that this year in particular would see less interest in town politics.

“You typically see civil burnout after a presidential election year,” Spiliotes said. “Once people get through that big decision, attention to politics seems to diminish a little bit.”

University of New Hampshire political analyst Andy Smith said people just aren’t in the habit of making deliberative sessions a go-to event.

“It’s not particularly well advertised,” Smith said. “Neighbors aren’t talking about it. If you are in the habit of going to these things, then you will go, but otherwise most people just won’t change their mind and decide to attend.”

Spiliotes said convincing people to change their minds can be difficult.

“Part of it is convincing people that it’s in their own self interest to make the effort to come,” he said. “If people feel a sense that this is a big issue, then they are more likely to come. There is a danger you need to be able to communicate why it matters and that is hard.”

Town officials are left at a loss at how to get numbers higher again.

“Maybe we could have a raffle there, where someone could win some prize,” Campbell said. “The general attitude is pretty negative. They don’t think that turning out at a meeting will make a difference.”