EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 27, 2008

Deliberative sessions begin this week; Big decisions often made, but few attend lengthy meetings

By Gordon Fraser , Staff writer

The most important meeting you probably won't attend is coming up.

Over the next few weeks, towns and school districts will hold their annual deliberative sessions. While the meetings are often ignored by the vast majority of voters, the decisions made can affect their lives in big ways, according to those familiar with the process.

Most towns and school districts in this area hold deliberative sessions before voters cast ballots. This is where residents debate and offer amendments to the warrant articles proposed by citizens or town and school officials - everything from proposals to buy new firetrucks, to build new schools, to the overall budget.

Once the wording of the articles is finalized, they are placed on the ballot for Town Meeting, which falls on March 11 this year.

The process used to take one night, and in some towns and school districts it still does. Under traditional Town Meeting rules, all of the amending and voting took place in a single session. But in Southern New Hampshire, most towns have adopted newer deliberative session rules. Only Londonderry, Chester and Salem hold modified versions of the traditional Town Meeting.

And while each town and school district has its own distinct issues, many communities are grappling with similar questions this year. Both Salem and Hampstead, for instance, are forwarding proposals to build new police stations.

In Hampstead, officials plan to use the deliberative session to amend downward the proposed station's $2.4 million sticker price. The town hopes to save $100,000 by using an access road built by a developer.

In Salem, police Chief Paul Donovan has said he will not try again to get a new police station if voters reject the proposed $7.3 million station this year. Voters rejected a plan for a new station in 2006, but many people credited that rejection to an unpopular location for the building.

At the Windham deliberative session on Feb. 9, voters will debate a proposal to hire four new firefighters and take advantage of $421,000 in federal grant money to cover part of their salaries and benefits over the next five years.

Opponents say it will still cost the town about a million dollars over that period for its share of the salaries and benefits, if the warrant article is approved. But proponents say it makes to sense to take advantage of available federal money for firefighting positions that are needed now or will be needed in the near future.

In Salem, a virtually identical proposal will go before voters - one that Selectman Patrick Hargreaves tried to put on the chopping block. He had opposed the measure largely because he was trying to cut projects to prevent a 3 percent budget increase from ballooning.

Any of those local proposals could change dramatically after the deliberative session, and most residents won't have much say in those changes, because they won't be in attendance.

"I think that it's the commitment of time, and the process of debating and voting in public that many people don't have the time or the patience for," said Dave Connell, legal services counsel to the New Hampshire Local Government Center.

Others agree, and warn that small groups of citizens can use the deliberative session to dramatically change the proposals other voters decide on later in the year.

"At one (Plaistow) meeting, we counted and there were only three people who weren't somehow related to the (town government)," said former Plaistow Town Manager John Scruton, now the president of the New Hampshire Municipal Managers Association. "People fail to realize that, at deliberative session, significant amendments can be made."

When Scruton was town manager in Goffstown, he said, a warrant article proposing that the town sell a particular building was amended to say that the town wouldn't sell the building.

"Either way it was voted (at Town Meeting), it would result in the city retaining the building," he said.

The first deliberative sessions of the season will be held on Saturday in Atkinson, Danville, Plaistow, Sandown and the Derry School District. A rash of others will follow soon after - three on Feb. 5, two more on Feb. 6, and so on.

Voters will then go to the ballot box - their chance to cast up or down votes on projects and proposals - on March 11. In Salem, most of the decisions will actually be made at a second deliberative session on March 15.

Staff writers John Basilesco, Rebecca Correa and Penny Williams contributed to this report.