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Taking stock of SB 2: Is the so-called ballot law working?

By Tom Eastman
CONWAY — Attendance at Conway's annual deliberative town and school meetings under SB 2 the past few years brings to mind one of comedian Jay Leno's funnier newspaper headlines:
“Rally against apathy draws small crowd.”
This town has lived with the Senate Bill 2 style of annual town and school meeting since March 1996 when voters adopted the so-called ballot bill by a tally of 1,037 to 531 for the town and 1078 to 425 for the school. The first year for the new style of annual town meeting began the following year.
It replaced the old traditional form of annual town meeting style of government. It was a success that first year, but whether it's working all these years later is a matter for debate.
Only about 112 voters of the town's 6,621 registered voters turned out to Loynd Auditorium at Kennett High March 4 for the town deliberative portion of town meeting. Two nights later,160 people, roughly 2.4 percent, attended the deliberative portion of school meeting.
Conway voters head to the polls to act on the town and school warrant articles and ballot April 9.
Town and school officials were polled for their views in the weeks since deliberative town meeting.
Speaking at the end of a recent selectmen's meeting alongside fellow selectmen Mike DiGregorio, Howard “Crow” Dickinson, Mary Seavey and Stacy Sand, selectmen chair David Weathers said he would like to see a combination of the old traditional form of town meeting and SB 2.
He suggested holding the deliberative meeting on a Saturday, followed by the polling a month later as it is now versus holding the deliberative on a weeknight.
 “We used to have some town meetings on Saturdays under the traditional system, when we'd vote then. I feel if we had deliberative on a Saturday, we'd get better participation — and then we would still vote a month later,” said Weathers.
That elicited the following comment from Sand:
“Do you know how many people work on a Saturday in this [tourism-dependent] community, Dave?”
“Yes,” said Weathers, “I do. I always worked on weekends. But you can find a way to vote — if you want to vote, you're going to find a way to vote. I think if we had the deliberative on a Saturday we would have a bigger turnout [at the deliberative].”
Weathers agreed with DiGregorio's assertion that many people are often intimidated of speaking out in public alongside their neighbors.
In that regard, voting by ballot in the privacy of a voting booth under SB 2 is an improvement — it also leads to greater participation at the polls.
“I don't feel people can vote their conscience with neighbors watching them if you do it during the deliberative portion,” said Weathers. “At the old town meetings, they debated the article, then they had a hand show. People felt intimidated by that.”
DiGregorio has never been a big fan of SB 2, and said as much at the selectmen's meeting.
He agreed with Dickinson, who said that misinformation can get out there between the deliberative and the time of the actual vote, as happened a few years ago, he and Dickinson said, regarding the town garage.
Dickinson said “misinformation got out there” about there being a plan to “build a new garage next to the old one.”
“I've always been very critical of SB 2, as everyone knows,” said DiGregorio. “I like the old form of town meeting, where voters would get the facts from the folks up at the main table, who could explain things directly and then there would be the vote so you wouldn't have things happen like Crow says about the town garage misinformation.”
“On the other side of that,” added DiGregorio, “people do have an issue with taking a stand directly bedside their neighbor or friends sitting next to them with an opposing view. There is a reason why people migrated away from town meeting type of government and arguments.”
“As you know,” continued DiGregorio, “we did look into alternative types of government, such as an appointed mayor with a town council. But in my mind, that takes away voter input, so that would be even worse.”
“As much as I don't like SB 2,” said DiGregorio, “I don't want to go with any of the alternatives because, again, I don't want to take the voters' rights way. I like them to participate directly with us, and I don't want to go back to traditional form of town meeting because I don't think you get honesty with that anymore — you get a hybrid of what happens at our deliberative where two or three people stand up and try to bully everyone to their opinion and that's not right, either.”

Disinterested voters?
Selectmen aren't sure of the disconnect that leads people to stay away from the deliberative.
They also hope that it may be that as town manager Earl Sires noted, that they are happy with the way town government is going.
Or, maybe they're too busy.

Educated voters?
Whether they are making informed votes when they do go to the polls is another question.
“Do they watch on Valley Vision? Yeah, I think they do,” said DiGregorio, who is the selectmen's representative to the Valley Vision community television board. “They watch the deliberative meetings and get some of their information there. And, friends tell me they watch the selectmen's meetings so they get some of their information there. But I also do hear that people don't participate because they don't have any problems with what's going on.
“So,” opined DiGregorio, “you have people who show up [at deliberative] like me who feel obligated to participate; you have people who are really unhappy; and you have people who are really happy.”
Sand and Seavey think that a lot of people are just too busy to get involved.
“I think the turnout for SB 2 deliberative is probably similar to what you would have for traditional town meeting,” said Sand. “Hopefully the tally is more for the final vote.The traditional town meetings I've attended maybe start out with more people, but then people vote their cause and leave. I don't know if that would still hold true in Conway. But I think the problem is people are not taking that much interest in participating.”
Seavey said those who care about an issue attend the deliberative —  "but sadly, we have such a small turnout,” she said.
Dickinson, seeking his third term as selectmen at the polls April 9, served his first term in the early 1970s. He said a lot has changed since then.
“There has been a lousy turnout for SB 2 every year except the first year,” said Dickinson. “When I was a first a selectman, back in the '70s, you could hardly get a seat with traditional town meetings — there would be 400 people there at the old Kennett High,” said Dickinson. “But then something happened — they didn't want to get up and fight with their neighbors.
“I don't think SB 2 has worked as well as it was intended,” said Dickinson. “It's good in some ways — if you're opposed to some things you can get up and have an effect. But a lot of people don't even care enough to do that!”
Seavey said few young people attend the deliberative.
“It's nice to see the young voters, but it tends to be ages over 50, other than the school [deliberative sessions],” said Seavey. “I think a lot of people do watch [Valley Vision] which is great, but they would not come out at night in March.”
Sand said she doubted that holding a meeting on a Saturday would make much of a difference. “I am not convinced it would make a big difference for anybody except for maybe a few seniors,” she said.
Conway town manager Earl Sires said he's convinced SB 2 has potential.
“It's not so much the system,” said Sires, who began working as town manager in 2000, three years into SB 2, “as it is the [low] participation. If people would participate, it would work better, I think, and I would encourage them to do it.”
He said he believed the process worked well this year.
“I think,” said Sires, “we had a very good process this year, all in all, with the budget committee from the town side. As for the school side, with the default budget being bigger than the proposed budget, well, government ain't pretty.”
He said the traditional form of town meeting worked well in the town's early years, but it's hard for people to participate in this day and age.
“It worked well in the 1700s through the early 1900s, when decisions were simpler and fewer. It's a lot tougher now,” said Sires, “for people to stay involved — there's so much information, it's hard for people to absorb it all.”
The town attempts to keep voters informed by publishing a voters' guide prior to the deliberative session, as well as the town report prior to the ballot vote.

Hounsell: Not a fan
Former selectman and current school board and library trustee candidate Mark Hounsell despises the lack of participation. Coming from an actively political native family, he doesn't understand how people can choose not to be more involved.
“I think it's time to ditch it [SB 2],” said Hounsell in an interview last month. “It's time to face the facts, especially with the school budget. We were not given a choice, as the default is bigger than the budget committee's proposed budget. You look at Bartett, where they had 400 people turn out for their traditional annual school district meeting, and here in Conway, we had 110 for the town and 140 for the school, which is actually up. The format is confusing after all these years regarding parliamentary procedures. There's a lack of understanding about what motions are in order or even regarding amendments.”
Whether voters are informed when they go to the polls is debatable, he said.
“They have limited choices to stay informed, so they make their decisions based on those choices, and in most cases, they support the budget committee's recommendation. But, that's not the same as participating in the process and in the decision itself.”
Ever a political observer, he says governance suffers when people don't participate.
“It's not about being satisfied, as it is about knowing you did your duty,” said Hounsell. “It's about self governance, and if we can't do that, then special interests and people with ulterior motives will step in and have their way.”
He said “by and large, the budget committee by default has become the town council.
"The budget committee's recommendation for the most part is usually embraced,” he said.
On the school side, Conway school board chair Janine McLauchlan believes that voters often don't attend the deliberative because “they feel the process is complicated and fairly drawn out, and perhaps they don't know when it's appropriate to get involved.”
“I think a lot of times the people who are not familiar with the process have come from other states or towns with different process and they don't realize during the deliberative portion that they do have the ability to make changes as to what will go on the ballot,” said McLauchlan.
Outgoing school board member Dick Klement, who is running unopposed for the budget committee, said he favors SB 2 over traditional town meeting.
“I think SB 2 is a step above traditional annual meeting,” said Klement. “Instead of having 14 people turning up in a snowstorm on a [March] night to decide what the budget will be, we have people go to the polls. If we get 1,400 people out to vote, that's seen as a huge number, which is kind of sad. If you go traditional, the turnout is roughly the same as we have at deliberative now, which is a small minority.”
Fellow school board member John Skelton noted there are advantages and drawbacks to either form. “A more pressing issue is when the default budget and the adopted budget offer little or a confusing alternative,” he said.
Town clerk Rhoda Quint said the challenge is getting people to understand that at the deliberative, they do have the power to make changes.
“SB 2 looks good on paper,” she said. “But what people don't realize is the importance of the deliberative, that articles can be amended. For town and school officials, they attend the deliberative because they're involved. But to many people, staying out late does come into play. If there is a burning issue, or a tight race, they come out to the polls.”
Interviewed last month, municipal budget committee chair Joe Mosca said he believed the process worked well overall this year.

School under SB 2
On the school side, SAU 9 superintendent Carl Nelson said voters participation is always desired, whether under traditional or SB 2.
“I think it's  shame we don't get more voters out [for the deliberative]. I think SB 2 is somehwat responsible for that — we had 140 out of 6,000 voters at the deliberative. We  always want to see more people at the polls, exercising their right to vote on any of the issue. SB 2 certainly lengthens the process,” said Nelson.
“The default budget has certainly been the source of some of the issues,” Nelson continued. “We have been directed by the board several years now to come in with a flat line budget — and when you do that, you end up like this year with a default budget being bigger than proposed budget. I am not sure whether SB 2 has accomplished what it set out to do.”
The proof of how well SB 2 is working for both the town and school will be evidenced by the turnout at the polls April 9.

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