A Look Back: The legislation that changed town meeting

State Rep. Patricia Higgins, D-Hanover, holds a sign on voting day at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on May 8, 2018. Higgins was opposing a bid to have Hanover become an SB2 town. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

State Rep. Patricia Higgins, D-Hanover, holds a sign on voting day at Hanover High School in Hanover, N.H., on May 8, 2018. Higgins was opposing a bid to have Hanover become an SB2 town. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — Carly Geraci

Hanover businessman Jim Rubens, who squeaked out a New Hampshire Senate victory, gets a hug from companion Susan Locke in Etna, N.H., on Nov. 8, 1994. The Republican defeated Democrat Anne Rowe, of Wilmot, N.H., for the District 5 seat. (Valley News - Robert Pope) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hanover businessman Jim Rubens, who squeaked out a New Hampshire Senate victory, gets a hug from companion Susan Locke in Etna, N.H., on Nov. 8, 1994. The Republican defeated Democrat Anne Rowe, of Wilmot, N.H., for the District 5 seat. (Valley News - Robert Pope) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Robert Pope

Vice Moderator Bill Waste collects paper ballots for a petitioned article that would have required the Selectboard to perform a “Full Statistical Revaluation” for the tax year 2024 to update appraised property values to more accurately reflect the current market during Town Meeting at the Lyme School Community Gymnasium in Lyme, N.H., on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Voters rejected the article, but approved all others on the warrant. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Vice Moderator Bill Waste collects paper ballots for a petitioned article that would have required the Selectboard to perform a “Full Statistical Revaluation” for the tax year 2024 to update appraised property values to more accurately reflect the current market during Town Meeting at the Lyme School Community Gymnasium in Lyme, N.H., on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. Voters rejected the article, but approved all others on the warrant. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America file — Alex Driehaus

Canaan Selectboard member Tom Ireton lifts a voting booth curtain on April 8, 1997, during polling at the fire station in Canaan, N.H. It was the first year of ballot voting under New Hampshire's official ballot law, with a deliberative session to hear and amend the warrant on one day and voting by Australian ballot on another. A proposal to rescind the prior year's approval of law was defeated 434-365. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Canaan Selectboard member Tom Ireton lifts a voting booth curtain on April 8, 1997, during polling at the fire station in Canaan, N.H. It was the first year of ballot voting under New Hampshire's official ballot law, with a deliberative session to hear and amend the warrant on one day and voting by Australian ballot on another. A proposal to rescind the prior year's approval of law was defeated 434-365. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

By STEVE TAYLOR

For the Valley News

Published: 03-03-2024 6:31 PM

Modified: 03-04-2024 6:02 PM


It was arguably the greatest change in the structure of New Hampshire town government in almost three centuries, seen by advocates as a necessary response to rapid population growth in many communities and by others as an assault on a cherished tradition whose roots can be traced as far back as ancient Greece.

Three decades ago, a freshman Republican from Hanover was elected to the State Senate, and his top priority was legislation to give towns the option of abandoning the town meeting format, where all voters form the legislative body and debate and vote on budgets and policies versus going to a system in which decisions are made via ballot with no need to attend a meeting.

Jim Rubens wrote and became the principal advocate for legislation that was identified as Senate Bill 2, and its shorthand moniker, SB2, soon became an enduring part of the vocabulary of local government in the state. Rubens today calls enactment of SB2 his proudest achievement in politics, even as he recalls receiving death threats and plenty of verbal abuse as he piloted the measure through the legislative thickets in Concord.

Looking back, enactment of SB2 was only a first step, as it would come up for revision and tinkering in virtually every session of the General Court down through the years. But it soon began to pick up towns ready to do away with the traditional town meeting format and instead have issues decided by referenda. It required 60% of voters to adopt the SB2 format, and it wasn’t long before towns such as Merrimack, N.H., and Hampton, N.H., which had experienced dramatic population growth since the 1960s, were voting to switch. Several towns were quick to adopt SB2, and there’s been a slow increase ever since.

School districts are separate municipal corporations in New Hampshire, and they, too, have transitioned away from the traditional meeting structure.

Sprawling regional school districts are very likely to have made the switch in recent years, and smaller single-town districts have slowly joined the club.

The traditional town meeting in Merrimack had gotten so unwieldy that the moderator had to arrange a half-dozen different meeting halls connected by closed-circuit TV to accommodate the turnout. Now, in 2024, substantially more New Hampshire voters reside in towns operating under SB2 provisions than those who live in communities holding the traditional town meeting.

But still a vestige of the traditional town meeting lingers on in the SB2 construct. It is the “deliberative session” that affords voters the opportunity to debate budgets and issues that have been proposed by the selectboard or petitioners for inclusion on the official referendum ballot.

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Voters can amend these ballot articles, a feature that has brought frequent problems. Provision for voter input through the deliberative session was deemed essential to preserving citizen opportunity to debate and offer changes to pending agenda items. It also was important that voters have an option to adopt SB2 and to change back to the old traditional form, as well. Enfield is one of a tiny handful of towns that have tried SB2, then reverted to the old way.

Deliberative sessions typically draw only a handful of participants and are occasionally hijacked by a determined minority. Examples of mischief abound, such as cutting an appropriation measure to one dollar or reversing the intent of the selectboard with just a word or two of change in the text of a proposed article.

Defeat of budgets at the polls gave rise to a provision in SB2 law that creates a “default budget” that is usually an automatic repeat of the previous year’s budget. The legislature recognized that towns have to provide certain services no matter what and so must have the financial resources to maintain them for the ensuing year.

A basic argument for adoption of SB2 has always been that it will increase voter turnout, and this has been true in most venues. People have long argued they can’t give up time to sit in a traditional town meeting due to work requirements, health restrictions or lack of understanding of how a traditional town meeting functions. Defenders of the traditional way call SB2 “McGovernment” because it diminishes civic involvement and informed decisionmaking.

Early on, prevailing wisdom among conservatives had been that traditional town meetings tended toward excessive spending and adoption of unwanted policies. The isolation of the SB2 voting booth would motivate many voters who shared their views to vote in opposition, they thought. Viewed from the other side of the fence, liberals feared just that possibility, making it harder to boost appropriations and change local policy.

According to Rubens, that was the political situation in Concord when he started out on his crusade.

He had backing from a group called Granite State Taxpayers and other conservative lobbying organizations. Social service agencies and education particularly feared difficulty getting financial support from the voting public.

But, in a surprising twist, things seem to have flipped. Rubens sums it up: SB2 was opposed on the left but now it is broadly supported, while conservatives are disappointed to learn that voters often land on the progressive side of issues. What was anticipated to be a brake on taxes and spending hasn’t happened — stuff seems to pass or lose in about the same proportion as in the traditional meeting format.

In the furious battles in the early days of SB2’s adoption, the New Hampshire Municipal Association was frequently in the middle, trying to ease what seemed like radical changes that would disrupt local governance statewide, but as it became clear that some sort of ballot-form system was coming up, it worked overtime to fine-tune the legislation. Another key player was Betsy Patten, a Moultonborough Republican who chaired the House Municipal and County Government Committee, which was ground zero for legislative battles over SB2 and its subsequent tweaks. Patten is credited with sanding down a lot of the rough edges of the official ballot system as it evolved.

Along the way, a new form of municipal governance appeared in New Hampshire. It’s called “Charter Town” and it incorporates features of city government, with a governing council making decisions. But some of these towns also have a ballot by all voters on budgets and other major issues.

Here’s a breakdown of New Hampshire local government structures with numbers of voters on checklists:

■67 SB2 towns, 292,000 voters, 31% of state total.

■148 traditional Town Meeting towns, 214,000 voters 22% of state total.

■Nine Charter towns, 143,800 voters, 15% of state total.

■13 cities, 266,500 voters, 28% of state total.

Current numbers for SB2 school districts are unavailable, but a 2021 tally showed that 62 single-town districts and 20 multi-town regional school districts have adopted SB2.

Steve Taylor of Meriden contributes occasionally to the Valley News.