Temple voters to weigh SB2 at Town Meeting, again

  • The Temple Village Green Committee beautifies Temple's public green spaces. Sept. 15, 2020. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 6/9/2021 4:02:25 PM

Temple voters will once again decide whether or not to adopt SB2 at Saturday’s Town Meeting. It will be the 16th time the town has voted on it in nearly as many years. 

SB2 is a process that allows residents to vote on all warrant articles by ballot. In towns that adopt SB2, the first session of Town Meeting is a deliberative session where residents can discuss, debate, and amend warrant articles. The second session comes about 30 days later as a ballot vote, typically on the second Tuesday of March in which voters choose all elected officials, and vote on zoning amendments as well as the warrant. This contrasts with traditional Town Meeting format, in which residents cast ballots for elected officials and zoning amendments at the first session, and the second “business session” is an in-person meeting where residents deliberate and vote on the warrant.

Temple petitioner Brian Kullgren has been behind the town SB2 initiative since it first appeared on the ballot in 2005. He’s the one to turn in the petition every year, although he gets help from other supporters, he said. “We have come extremely close a couple of times,” he said, sometimes garnering 50% or more “yes” votes, but falling short of the 60% supermajority needed to pass.

Kullgren, who served as a Selectman for nine years, said he’s committed to the concept of SB2 because he believes it would involve more voters in the Town Meeting process, and therefore better reflect the “true will of the community.” That’s the extent of the motive among most Temple SB2 supporters he knows, Kullgren said. “We just want more people to vote … and many, many more people to vote,” he said. Any outcome of a warrant article vote would be acceptable, he said, so long as it involved a more substantial portion of the town. “I think we would have more confidence in the will of the community if we have many more votes.” Furthermore, he said he likes the idea of having 30 days after the deliberative session to study and decide how to vote.

Whereas about 450 residents regularly vote at the polls for zoning amendments and elected officials, far fewer come to the business portion of Town Meeting to deliberate and pass the warrant, Kullgren said. Census estimates put Temple’s total population at 1,422 in 2019.

“I don’t think 125 voters at Town Meeting every year is representing the town well enough,” he said, “In this day and age, many people can’t get to Town Meeting because of one thing or another,” he said, whether it be military duty, responsibilities to their children, or work. Meanwhile, under SB2, residents could cast absentee ballots if unavailable during polling hours.

SB2 first became an option for New Hampshire entities in 1996. Currently, 72 towns and 81 schools and school districts use it across the state.

New Ipswich switched to the SB2 process around the year 2000, Town Moderator Bob Romeril said, and he doesn’t think the town’s residents would go back. For one, there’s nowhere in town that could accommodate the more than 4,000 registered voters in New Ipswich. Furthermore, “Any meeting that you have in person, whether it’s under SB2 or not, requires people to be able to attend and participate for the duration,” Romeril said. People are busy, he said, and there’s been low attendance at both the town and its school district’s SB2 deliberative sessions over the past five years, which has translated to low levels of discussion on warrant articles. That said, more voters “definitely” cast ballots than would attend Town Meeting, he said. “I don’t think they would go back, because it would restrict the ability for people to vote,” he said.

Is SB2 right for other towns? “I think of it as a personal choice of the different towns, based on their size and the cohesiveness of their community,” he said.

Bennington (2019 population estimate 1,519) adopted SB2 over 25 years ago, Town Moderator John J. Cronin said, mainly because the ConVal School District had just converted to the process, but also for engagement reasons: “People in influential positions thought it would be better to engage more voters than would normally show up for … Town Meeting,” he said. There were a couple early attempts to rescind SB2 after the town adopted it but they failed, he said.

As the moderator, Cronin must and does support what the voters agreed to do, but SB2 has had consequences, he said. The deliberative session is “very poorly attended. It’s always poorly attended compared to Town Meetings,” Cronin said. “I’m unaware of any municipality that has not experienced that kind of fallout once that format was adopted,” he said.

“I understand the underlying rationale for getting behind SB2,” he said. “The reality is, it becomes very difficult to educate the voters on specific issues because they don’t participate in the deliberative session,” he said, adding, “You can’t force people to show up.” When asked whether certain warrant articles would have had different outcomes if Bennington had traditional Town Meetings rather than SB2 votes, Cronin said, “of course.”

Back in Temple, Kullgren said that to him, the threat of low turnout at a deliberative session doesn’t cancel out what he sees as unacceptably low turnout at Town Meeting. “Only 12% of registered voters are going to Town Meeting. I consider that a very low turnout,” he said.

To Temple resident Mary Beth Ayvazian, however, the 12 to 15% of Temple’s population that shows up for Town Meeting is far preferable to even fewer people calling the shots at a deliberative session. People tend to show up more for final votes rather than deliberative sessions generally, she said, and residents who can’t attend Town Meeting for lack of childcare would run into the same problems at the deliberative session (Residents are currently stepping up to provide child care at Town Meeting this Saturday, she said). Ayvazian has distributed pamphlets against adopting SB2 in town, she said.

“The proponents of SB2 say more people will have a chance to weigh in, but if they don’t go to the deliberative session, they can’t really be informed about how a warrant article may affect their neighbors,” she said. Just 18 people tuned into the Zoom hearing on SB2 a couple weeks ago, she said. SB2 “may be perfect for a town that is upwards of 10,000 people, but for a town the size of Temple, our Town Meeting is great,” Ayvazian said. “You can look at people face to face and debate the merits or downside of any warrant article and change it at Town Meeting. We’re a small community, we sometimes degree vehemently, but we might go out afterwards for a cup of coffee,” she said. “It’s direct democracy in action. What more can you ask for?”

Kullgren said he was unsure what to expect from voters this year, as this is the first year the issue is being taken up at Town Meeting rather on the ballot, as it did every year from 2005 to 2019. In 2019, the New Hampshire state legislature passed HB 415, which required voting to adopt SB2 procedures to do so at Town Meeting, rather than on the ballot.

The change in protocol was well-supported by legislators and appeared to be requested from the New Hampshire Municipal Association on behalf of some of the towns they represent, Bruce Kaneuer, Municipal Bureau Supervisor for the Municipal and Property Division of the Department of Revenue Administration said. The move came during a tailing-off of SB2 adoptions by schools and towns, Kaneuer said: One adopted SB2 in 2017, two in 2018, and one in 2020.

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