EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 11, 2013

Editorial: Good government requires engaged voters

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Taxes and spending are ever-present topics of conversation in New Hampshire.

So it is surprising that, when given an opportunity to have a say on local spending — and thus, local tax rates — so few bother to make the effort.

That was apparent at recent deliberative sessions in Salem, Derry, Londonderry and elsewhere in Southern New Hampshire. The extreme case comes from Derry, where just 83 people voted at the school district deliberative session on a measure to restore $800,000 cut from the school budget. It passed by just 15 votes, 49-34.

Those 83 people amount to fewer than one-half of 1 percent of Derry’s 17,789 registered voters.

The budget cut reflected less money coming to Derry in state adequacy aid. The result of the cut was projected to be the loss of 14 positions. The restoration of the $800,000 likely will save those jobs, which included teachers, maintenance, assistants and one secretary.

School Board member Ken Linehan said the board did everything it could to save money and staff.

“We did not take these cuts lightly,” he said. “We believe they will not have an impact on the quality of education of the students.”

Derry Education Association president Meg Morse-Barry said it was vital to keep the positions.

“Cutting positions will affect the quality of education in Derry,” she said. “There will be larger classes. We will go from the highest standards to just adequate.”

The decision to restore $800,000 in spending shows the impact just a few voters can have at a deliberative session. The deliberative sessions give voters the opportunity to amend warrant articles proposed for the upcoming town elections.

The turnout of less than one-half of 1 percent reflects poorly on Derry voters. It is true that voters will get a final say, up or down, on the budget at the upcoming elections. Perhaps restoring the $800,000 was a good idea. Perhaps not. But at least such a significant amount of spending merited some discussion.

Derry is not the only community that struggled with attendance at its deliberative sessions. Last Monday night, turnout at the Londonderry town deliberative session was also just one-half of 1 percent. Just 0.65 percent of registered voters showed up at the deliberative session in Salem recently. Danville posted the best turnout — a pathetic 2 percent.

The poor attendance leads 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 told reporter Alex Lippa. “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.”

It’s an old saw that everybody complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.

The same is now true about local spending and tax rates.

Those who cannot be bothered to participate in their local government have little cause to complain about it.