Editorial: Transparency key in voting season
As the words to a ’90s alternative rock song goes, “we have to be able to criticize what we love.” And in New Hampshire, we love our volunteer system of town government in which our neighbors run for local office or agree to serve on appointed committees. Our town officials spend countless hours examining the public good and carrying out municipal business on our behalf, often with little gratitude in return and plenty of criticism to boot. But the town meeting form of government, in which voters enjoy direct democratic rule (albeit locally), is one that has served New Hampshire for centuries.
But the perennial problem is transparency and the willingness (or lack thereof as the case may be) of those in positions of power to keep the political process open. That is why in 1967, New Hampshire made the public’s right to know a matter of law in RSA 91-A.
Statutes are open to interpretation, and often it takes a court ruling to set things right when opinions differ. There are some situations, though, that seem pretty straightforward.
In December, when the Jaffrey Select Board agreed to union contracts with police officers and Department of Public Works employees for 2013, the board also voted to extend the 2.25 percent wage increase police would get under the proposed plan being put before voters in March to the rest of the town’s employees. (If voters agree to the collective bargaining agreement, DPW workers will receive a 1 percent wage increase and a new sick-leave bank for employees facing periods of prolonged illness or injury.) At the time, town officials reported the contracts would cost the town an additional $18,902 in wages for police and DPW workers. But town officials were uncertain how much the salary increases for non-union employees would cost the town. At Jaffrey’s budget hearing on Sunday, they still didn’t know, despite multiple Ledger-Transcript requests for that information since December.
But that was not the only reason for dismay. The hearing was scheduled to take place Saturday, but the weekend’s Nor’easter cut into that plan, and town officials decided to hold the meeting the very next day. We question whether that was the most accessible time to hold the snow date for voters, who were still digging out Monday morning. The number of people in attendance — 25, a number that includes Select Board members and several department heads — speaks for itself, given that in years past it’s been a standing-room-only event.
We’re hopeful that the cost of raises to non-union employees will be made available by Town Meeting, so voters will know exactly what they are voting on. As it stands, the town’s operating budget is at just over $9.2 million, up $348,642 over the 2012 budget.
Town officials are in a unique position just now to make strides in the area of transparency, as the Select Board closes in on its search for the next town manager. With the changing of the guard can come a change in practices, which, however unintentional, can come across as less than forthcoming at times.
Town officials’ inability to provide public information in a timely fashion compromises the public’s trust, something towns can ill-afford to lose in these tight economic times.