ENFIELD — At the end of this month, residents will decide whether or not to do away with the traditional town meeting and handle all town meeting business in what is known as the SB 2 vote, which that would return the city to a reunion format it scrapped with two decades ago.
For the most part, Enfield voters currently elect city officials and determine zoning changes by an all-day Australian ballot at the state’s traditional meeting on the second Tuesday in March. This is followed by a floor meeting, usually on Saturdays, where residents vote on other term items such as the city budget and other spending measures.
The article to move to the SB 2 format, which would remove the Saturday floor meeting and move to a deliberative session followed by a ballot vote, is a requested article, meaning it is from the residents rather than the Selectboard .
Debra Ford, who served as the Mascoma Valley Regional School District’s business manager for eight years, is one of the residents championing SB 2, and she cites the changing times as a reason for reviving the format.
“Town Meeting, it used to get a lot of turnout,” Ford said. “I just feel like there are now a lot of people working on Saturdays or not having childcare or away. Maybe they are retirees and they are absent during the municipal assembly and they cannot vote by mail for all these budget items.
SB 2 item requires 60% support to pass.
The petition was motivated, in part, by two multimillion-dollar obligations — one to renovate Whitney Hall, which includes city offices and the library, and another to build a new public safety facility that will house police, firefighters and EMS services – which will be voted on at this year’s ground meeting, set for 9 a.m. on April 30 in Huse Park.
With two costly bonds on the table, proponents of the SB 2 structure say it would allow more voters to weigh in on future bond proposals.
Others remain neutral on meeting formats.
“There are good reasons for both,” City Manager Ed Morris said. “It’s good to bring people together and let them voice their opinions and vote. That of SB 2 allows people who were unable to attend the meeting to vote by post.
The meeting’s format dates back to 1995, when the New Hampshire Legislature passed RSA 40:13 — better known by its legislative pseudonym, Senate Bill 2 — allowing cities and school districts to move away from the traditional structure of floor meetings.
After passing SB 2 in 1996, Enfield voters rejected a measure in 1997 that would have returned the town to traditional meeting, according to records of town reports provided by Alisa Bonnette, deputy town manager of Enfield.
In 2001, the effort was successful, and the measure to return to an indoor meeting was passed by a vote of 390 to 251.
The city returned to floor meetings in 2002 and there were no items to return to SB 2 until that year.
Few towns in Hampshire have reverted to a traditional floor after adopting all-day ballot voting under SB 2, but among them are two towns in the Mascoma Valley Regional School District: in 1999, Orange and Dorchester canceled the format of meeting.
Tim Jennings was one of the residents who led the effort 20 years ago to get Enfield back on the ground. He continues to support the format, in part because he pushes residents to learn more about topics before voting and to engage in discussion with residents they disagree with.
“Several times I was convinced by the argument of the prosecution to vote in a way that I would not have done. And it’s been helpful, it’s been very helpful,” Jennings said. “The main reason I think people promote SB 2 is because they think it increases the level of participation in city government, and I would say that’s a facade, it’s not really a case.”
A sample of voter turnout since the return to the ground meeting suggests ballot voting on Tuesday is attracting significantly more residents than meetings on Saturday.
In 2002, the first year of the return to the floor meeting, 571 votes were cast in a two-way race for city clerk in the Tuesday ballot.
According to the minutes of Saturday’s ground meeting, the paper ballot alone received 239 votes.
A decade later, in 2012, 847 residents voted in an uncontested race for city moderator in Tuesday’s ballot.
At the Saturday floor meeting of that year, 137 people voted by ballot on a sewer line extension.
Ford said if the city moved to SB 2, voters would still have the opportunity to change terms of reference and voice their opinions in a deliberative session, which is held the month before the city assembly.
“For me, it protects the entity. The school district or the city,” she said.
In 2021, nearly 600 people voted on a ballot on an article about whether to retain the city manager’s style of government.
But at last year’s floor meeting, only 80 people voted for an article about buying a new fire truck.
“These are the people who have time to go on a Saturday and spend the whole day,” Ford said. “It doesn’t reflect the population when there are only 200 people voting.”
Jennings worries that removing the floor meeting will cause a greater disconnect between elected officials, city businesses and voters.
He worries people won’t be able to get the information they need to vote and won’t have discussions that can help them make informed decisions.
“Only a handful of people know who the Selectmen are, what their faces look like, what their personalities look like,” he said, adding that Town Meeting gives residents a greater chance to interact with officials. the city. “If you really want to participate, you have to be interested in the subject and study a little in advance. You have to sit and listen to people sometimes for several hours. You are simply exercising an extraordinary responsibility. A lot of people don’t want to do that. »
Like Ford, Jennings cited this year’s two expensive renovation proposals as justification for his position.
At a floor meeting, he said, voters have more opportunity to understand what they are voting for.
“Overall the people of Enfield are really smart,” Jennings said. “I think when they come to Town Meeting, they participate in good faith and no one gets into a big argument, so I’ve always been impressed with our small town.”
Liz Sauchelli can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3221.