Times have changed, and so should our system
For some years now, I have been reading and listening to the pros and cons of changing our form of town government from the traditional Town Meeting to an alternative, called SB2.
As everyone knows, only a small portion of registered voters in our town show up for Town Meeting. No one can say for certain why this occurs but things are getting worse. Voter participation at Town Meeting has declined from about 220 in 2008 to about 133 in 2013. The turn out at the 2013 Town Meeting represented about 14 percent of all registered votes.
However, in the same year, just over 40 percent of all registered voters cast their ballots in the voting booth at the town election.
Hmmmmmmm . . . . . .
Maybe people don’t like Town Meeting? Or maybe they like voting in the privacy of a voting booth better.
The chances of us seeing a sudden spurt in Town Meeting attendance are probably somewhere between slim and nonexistent. We have been slack at attending Town Meeting for a long time now. One of my noisier neighbors takes the view that we have to keep doing Town Meeting the same way we have always done it or somebody else’s great-great-great grandparents (he comes from away) will roll over in their graves. Actually, I doubt this will happen. Dead people tend to be a pretty stable lot.
I think that the failing voter turnout may be the best argument in favor of adopting SB2. I think that if the Town Meeting form of government served the best interests of most voters, more of them would show up. So, why don’t more people show up to Town Meeting and make the town more fully their own? Probably there are lots of reasons. Here is my guess at some of them:
∎ Couples with children at home often both work and understandably, want to spend their free time with their kids. Can you imagine trying to sit through Town Meeting with a 3-year-old on your lap? Or worse, wondering where that little 8-year-old of yours went to with his new slingshot?
∎ Some may think that the whole Town Meeting thing is organized ahead of time by a very busy minority who, by careful preparation and disingenuous presentations, scheme to get everybody to vote the way they think they ought to. Can you imagine?
∎ And then there are some of us older folks who, despite our expanding posteriors, find it as hard to sit still as the youngsters do. Creaky joints, deteriorating circulation and problems of elimination do not make long spells of sitting any easier.
My sense is that the present Town Meeting form of government comes up a bit short in several respects. The greatest evidence of this is that so many stay away so often. Some have not attended Town Meeting in years and years. They act as though attending would bring on a dose of small pox. Maybe they just don’t like crowds? Or small town politicians?
Hmmmmm . . . . . .
Then, I think about SB2. The first part of this method, sometimes called the information session, would look a bit like our present Town Meeting with one exception — no voting. Maybe a few more would show up just out of curiosity. Some advocates of SB2 hold that it shortens the oratory a bit since those inclined to drone on and on cannot force a vote then and there, no matter what they do. There would still be time for those inclined toward honking and wheezing and slippery politics — just not so much of it. Some say that without the pressure for a vote, exaggerations and arm-twisting diminish. More truthfulness and less sitting — I’ll vote for that.
Then — a 30-day cooling off period. This would give voters time to consult with their friends, enemies, neighbors, in-laws, wayward children, clergy and financial advisors. It certainly seems possible that some do not like the pressure of immediate voting that Town Meeting imposes. Nothing like a little public pressure to get one’s hackles up, is there? At the end of the 30 days, when we have all settled down again, we could vote in voting booths, which are open for long hours one day.
The voting part would be pretty much the same as the way we presently vote during the town elections. The polls would be open from about 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. This would probably be better for working parents with small kids. They could trade off taking care of the little monsters so each would get a chance to vote and to have a little peace and quiet. Maybe they could sweet talk Grandma into coming over to babysit for the 3-year-old and Grandpaw could come along to help junior with his sling shot practice in the cellar.
It’s hard to say for sure that SB2 would be better, but for my part, I think it holds real promise. One thing is sure, if we don’t like it we can always go back to the Town Meeting form. There are 221 towns in New Hampshire. So far, almost one third of the towns, 67 to be exact, have adopted SB2. Of this 67, a goodly handful has voted to reconsider the switch. However, as far as I can tell, no town has yet chosen to return to the Town Meeting form of government once SB2 has been put in place. This tells me that while SB2 is widely accepted where it has been tried, it ain’t perfect either.
On voting day, March 11, Temple voters will have a chance to decide whether to give SB2 a try. I plan to give it a shot. Taking a chance on something new, in hopes of making something better — isn’t that what the original settlers of Temple did? They tried to make their futures better by trying new things. And they took far greater risks with their lives and their fortunes than we are ever asked to take. Perhaps some of you will join me in voting to take a chance on SB2.
Bill Walker lives in Temple.