SALEM — Either 715 residents — or three selectmen — could ask voters to get rid of town meeting as Salem has known it next year.

Selectmen and town attorney Gordon Graham last night discussed the processes for switching to a Senate Bill 2 form of government — under which all warrant articles and the town budget are voted on at the polls, not at a meeting. The discussion came after former Selectman Everett McBride submitted a petition to switch to S.B. 2, which was met with some confusion over just how Salem could change its unique "official ballot charter" government.

Graham said there were two ways voters could be asked to switch next year — with a petition signed by 715 voters for the question to appear on the ballot, or if three of five selectmen voted to put it there.

In Salem, the town budget, election of officers, bond issues and some other items all appear on a ballot for voters consider at the polls on Town Meeting day. Voters have the chance to amend those items prior to the election at First Deliberative Session.

But voters also consider cash articles at Second Deliberative Session, a meeting that happens after the election. This year, voters reconsidered a road project that had been shot down at the polls, where it was proposed as a bond, and voted to spend $2.56 million to fund part of the proposed project in cash.

Selectman Stephen Campbell, who signed the petition to switch to Senate Bill 2, said that vote prompted many signatures from people who voted against the road project at the polls.

"They want to go for election day, vote yes or no, and be done with it," Campbell said yesterday. "No surprises."

With Senate Bill 2, which is used in the Salem School District, voters can amend or debate the operating budget and warrant articles prior to the election. But they do not cast their final votes on any matters at a town meeting.

Yesterday, Ward told selectmen that the petition to change the form of government needed more than the 65 signatures it has now. The petition would need 715 signatures — 20 percent of voters who participated in the last election. It would also need approval by the Attorney General, Secretary of State, and the Department of Revenue Administration. This procedure would avoid the need for a charter commission, Graham said.

"(The petition) is the manner of amending the charter that the town must follow in order to switch from its current town meeting than to a Senate Bill 2 town meeting," Graham said.

But one way to avoid having more than 700 people sign the petition would be for selectmen to vote to put the change on the ballot. Campbell asked for the question to be put on the board's agenda next week.

Selectman Patrick Hargreaves, who also signed the petition, said having selectmen put the issue on the ballot makes more sense than having the town clerk verify the signatures of 715 voters.

"It's going to save us time, it's going to save us money," Hargreaves said.

An elected Charter Commission, approved at Town Meeting in 2009, considered changes to the charter that year. But they never came to a consensus for a charter that also met the approval of state officials.

Eliminating second deliberative session was considered, but some members were concerned because it would create the need for a default budget. In some S.B. 2 towns and school districts, the default budget can be higher than the one proposed that year, leaving voters with little choice in the matter. If the budget fails in the current system in Salem, it would be reconsidered at Second Deliberative Session.

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