Town meetings are a New Hampshire institution. It’s where all the year’s town business is voted on by citizens in town halls, gyms, and community centers around the state. But for the uninitiated, town meeting can be confusing. Daniela Allee breaks down the history and function of this annual tradition.
NOTE: This transcript was generated using an automated transcription service, and may contain typographical errors.
Daniela Allee: [00:00:00] Maybe you're a Gilmore Girls fan. And if you aren't I don't blame you. The hit TV show centers on the life of a mom and her daughter in smalltown Connecticut. And like a lot of small New England towns there are these things called town meetings.
Archival: [00:00:14] Previously proposed statutes with no procedural delay, so...
Daniela Allee: [00:00:19] People get together on the local issues.
Archival: [00:00:25] All those opposed. People what's going on? People?
Daniela Allee: [00:00:33] So is that what town meeting is like in New Hampshire?
Tricia Peone: [00:00:37] No that is I think a very sort of comical representation of really a very serious and important event in a town where you know the voters have this opportunity to be part of the process.
Archival: [00:00:52] [Audio from town meetings]
Ben Henry: [00:01:02] Welcome to Civics 101: New Hampshire. Today on the show, Daniela Allee peels back some of the layers of this venerated New Hampshire institution town meeting. How did it start. How does it work and in today's era. How are people participating in their communities.
Tricia Peone: [00:01:20] So it's interesting because people usually think of town meetings as very democratic institution.
Daniela Allee: [00:01:26] You know town meetings are direct democracy. The people make the decisions you all you and your neighbors in a school gym voting on the budget and other town ordinances. In fact in New Hampshire the law says that at these meetings citizens are the legislators.
Tricia Peone: [00:01:41] But its origins are actually theocratic meaning a rule by a religion or religious group.
Daniela Allee: [00:01:47] That's Tricia Peone. She's a New Hampshire historian and program manager at New Hampshire humanities. Remember the Puritans. They were the folks who left England in search of religious freedom eventually colonized Massachusetts and made their way up to New Hampshire.
Tricia Peone: [00:02:02] The point of it was to have a group of Congregationalism that's the Puritan church. So the members of the congregation people who are in good spiritual standing with the church making all of the decisions for the community.
Daniela Allee: [00:02:13] In the Church of England decisions were made only by the hierarchy of bishops and priests under the Queen and the Puritans wanted something radical. They wanted a say in how their church worked. That was the main reason why they had sailed all the way to the New World. Once they made it across the Atlantic it wasn't exactly a utopia quality. The decision makers in the Puritan church were men only men land owning men.
Tricia Peone: [00:02:40] So they take that church model the Congregational Church model of of church government and they apply that to town government.
Daniela Allee: [00:02:46] These landowning men would get together pretty frequently and make decisions for the town around how to divide up the land how much to pay in taxes to the church to support the minister and back in the 17th century who have to allow into the town because they would want to know is this person someone who regularly attends church. Are they in good spiritual standing. Are they cool like us. And some of the positions we have today in New Hampshire like this like board or the executive branch of a town. Go all the way back to the 17th century.
Tricia Peone: [00:03:18] The highest ranking people in the town people with the most well most wealth and status would likely be the selectman.
Daniela Allee: [00:03:26] There were other jobs besides the selectmen that people ran for.
Tricia Peone: [00:03:29] You know like the hog reave and like the the guy who asked check every fence in the town. There's position there are some town would have a position where someone was required to just you know basically catch all the animals that got loose and that person would be elected every year.
Daniela Allee: [00:03:46] Dunbarton still has this position and formerGov. John Sununu held it back in 2007. Town meeting has evolved since then it became more democratic as other groups were allowed to participate slowly. White men without property. Women after 1920. People of Color. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries enslaved people would hold their own form of term meaning electing black kings or governors for their own community. On the same day all the white men had their elections. And nowadays it's not just when the good old church boys wanna and get together that a town meeting happens to start Town Meeting is once a year.
[00:04:26] It's been that way since the 19th century and to make sure it all happens you need a town moderator a select board warrant articles a spot for the registered voters in the town to get together. Usually that happens in a school gym.
Archival: [00:04:41] We have a bunch of things to go through today...
Daniela Allee: [00:04:50] This is from a livestream of Kingston New Hampshire's deliberative session of their town meeting a few weeks ago at the back of the gym. There's this long table and a projector screen in the background sitting around the table are men and women mostly middle aged a couple guys are sporting Patriots jerseys and one woman commands the groom's attention. She is the town moderator. This is the elected official in charge of the town's election process. Their role on Town Meeting Day managed the meeting set the rules for the session. For example how long a voter gets to speak and even defusing any tense moments.
Harold Bragg: [00:05:27] We remind people at the beginning of the meeting that we are neighbors and we will be neighbors tomorrow.
Daniela Allee: [00:05:34] This is Harold Bragge Town Moderator of Kensington New Hampshire. He's been in that role for about nine years and town government for about 40 like the Kingston Town Moderator Harold reads each warrant article to the voters. These warrant articles are the agenda for Town Meeting.
Margaret Burns: [00:05:50] The warrant. The reason it's called a warrant is because it is actually supposed to be a warning to the voters of the subject matter that's going to be discussed and deliberated and ultimately voted on at the town meeting.
Daniela Allee: [00:06:04] That's Margaret Burns again director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association. There are two ways you can get something on the agenda. The Select Board which again is the executive arm of town government decides what will be a work article say buying a new fire truck.
Margaret Burns: [00:06:20] But the other way that articles get on the warrant is through petitions warrant articles and in fact the voters have the ability to garner a certain number of signatures and to require an article to be placed on the warrant.
[00:06:33] One that the selectmen may or may not be you know in favor of.
Daniela Allee: [00:06:37] Before Town Meeting Herald gets together with Kensington's Select Board to talk about the warrant articles.
Harold Bragg: [00:06:44] I always ask them if they feel based on their meetings if anything that they are proposing is contentious.
Daniela Allee: [00:06:50] Town moderators can choose to go to annual workshops put on by the New Hampshire Municipal Association.
Margaret Burns: [00:06:56] Then we're also sort of providing general guidance on good practices with regulating Town Meeting Rules of Procedure sort of things they have to anticipate or be ready for a town meeting because that's a big part of it for a moderator or you know being ready. You know expect the unexpected.
Daniela Allee: [00:07:12] Town Meeting is a public forum. The people speak their minds about the issues at hand zoning ordinances noise ordinances creating a town Heritage Commission.
Stephen Buckley: [00:07:21] The other areas that I've spent some time on in the training programs is dealing with the First Amendment.
Daniela Allee: [00:07:27] This is Stephen Buckley Legal Services counsel at the New Hampshire Municipal Association.
Stephen Buckley: [00:07:32] The First Amendment applies to Town Meeting. How does Town Meeting cope with those who wish to express their views. They could be voters or nonvoters can they wear t shirts expressing an opinion on a particular article.
[00:07:45] Yes they can. Can they hand out flyers. Yes. And what is the relationship between those who are attending who are not residents.
Daniela Allee: [00:07:53] The moderator does place some rules on what folks can say especially when it comes to speech that might disrupt the meeting someone saying the same thing over and over again or threatening folks with physical violence. Both of those are big No's. It's a balancing act for moderators. Let everyone have a fair chance to speak their mind and get through all of the warrant articles.
[00:08:23] The central tenet of town meeting is that the voters are the legislators in their town and not legislating power comes in the form of amendments so someone can propose a change to a warrant article. Let's say there is an article that says Are you in favor of allotting hundred thousand dollars for road reconstruction.
Harold Bragg: [00:08:42] The debate goes on at the meeting and there are people who say I don't think that we ought to be spending that kind of money on the roads and there are those that I think we should be spending more money on the roads.
Daniela Allee: [00:08:52] Let's say the person who doesn't want to spend the money on the roads like really really does not want to spend this money gets up waits their turn in line to talk and says.
Harold Bragg: [00:09:02] I'm proposing an amendment that's the one article I read that the town. Are you in favor of spending zero dollars for road construction in the community.
Daniela Allee: [00:09:12] Someone second amendment proposed byMr. if it ain't broke don't fix it. And then the amendment goes to a vote.
Harold Bragg: [00:09:19] If the Romney supports it then the mouth is zero.
Daniela Allee: [00:09:22] And that's the final version of a warrant article that's voted on.
Harold Bragg: [00:09:26] Again it's the New Hampshire tradition of the people have the last word.
Daniela Allee: [00:09:40] While this form of local governing has been lauded as the lifeblood of civic participation in New England that this is what democracy is all about. Participation in town meeting actually started to decline by the end of the 20th century because traditional town meeting is old long affair sometimes going on until midnight on a weeknight or for most of a Saturday.
[00:10:02] The warrant articles are read people debate proposed amendments to those articles and on that same day vote.
Stephen Buckley: [00:10:07] People are leading busy lives and they are less inclined perhaps to do these kind of things that build in their relationship with their community. Because you go to a town meeting you get to know your neighbors and get to know what's going on in your town and you can feel a part of what's going on in your community when you do that kind of thing.
Daniela Allee: [00:10:26] On the other hand some towns were also growing a lot and not everyone could fit into the school gym. So in 1995 the New Hampshire legislature decided there could be another form of town meeting. It would split up the two major parts of town meeting the debating or deliberation and the voting to two different days.
[00:10:45] This is a Senate bill 2 model, or for shorthand. SB 2 The deliberative session takes place about three weeks before ballots are cast about 72 of New Hampshire towns use the two day model. Other New Hampshire towns either follow the traditional town meeting structure everything happens on one day or have gone to a town council format which means those towns don't have a town meeting. Instead there are elected town representatives who make the decisions. Which is sort of like a city council. Some say even with this new format the turnout at the deliberative session is still pretty low and that can lend itself to interest groups in town getting more of a say than other folks.
Stephen Buckley: [00:11:27] There are always going to be interest groups and those interest groups will drive the people who are connected to that group to come to the town meeting so if are a strong supporter of the library you're going to come out and support the library budget. Some towns have a great deal of social capital which means where there's a lot of interaction there's a lot of participation there's a lot of contact with the schools and committees and organizations in the town.
[00:11:51] So it's a town by town.
Daniela Allee: [00:11:59] The town and the townspeople are not all powerful and they've never existed in a vacuum.
Tricia Peone: [00:12:05] Each town meeting really had its own authority from the colonial legislature. So in New Hampshire the General Assembly.
[00:12:11] This is historian Tricia Peone again. So the towns had to share some paver with the General Assembly. Those lawmakers would give towns instructions.
Tricia Peone: [00:12:19] Towns were also very jealous of their rights. They guarded them very carefully. So towns would would actually rise up against you know the royal royal authority or against the state authority or the colonial authority of the assemblies any time they felt like their rights were being usurped that tension between towns and the man still exists today. And while towns have control over a lot of what happens within their town boundaries.
Anna Brown: [00:12:44] We're a state where towns can only enact ordinances or laws that relate to very specific subjects.
Daniela Allee: [00:12:52] This is Anna Brown director of research and analysis at Citizens count a nonpartisan nonprofit group. And here's a law that spells out what's under a town's control.
Anna Brown: [00:13:02] Chapter 31 powers and duties of towns. So this has a list of things that they are. Allowed to operate so noise regulations. The observance of Memorial Day regulation of the use of mufflers upon boats and vessels fires kindling when people can use fires. Operations of vehicles on different roads. So for example you know you know you can't go certain speed limits or you can't drive here or what have you.
Daniela Allee: [00:13:35] All that to say towns have to look to state law to give them the authority to do things other states have something called Home Rule where towns are given a direct grant of power to govern themselves. But in New Hampshire there is no home rule. It isn't a free for all. Here's Margaret Burns again.
Margaret Burns: [00:13:53] Even a town meeting even that local democracy they can only pass by laws and ordinances and other things that state law says a town can pass.
[00:14:04] So things like zoning ordinances noise ordinances the town budget and school budget raising local taxes salaries for town employees and voting for local officials like the town clerk or Town Moderator.
[00:14:15] The Select Board a few things towns can't do. They can't impose term limits indoor smoking regulations that are stricter than state law or implement rent control. And remember how Margaret basically said that these meetings are no laughing matter. Here is the perfect example of how dead serious citizens take them.
Archival: [00:14:35] Millions of people are bracing and they are bundling up as the third nor'easter in two weeks pummels the northeast right now Boston really getting the brunt in 2013 when I nor'easter hit some folks cross country ski to cast their ballots.
Daniela Allee: [00:14:49] 2017 also saw a huge snow storm and that year while some folks braved the weather.
[00:14:55] About 70 towns decided to postpone the town election that led to the question do towns have the power to reschedule town meeting. Secretary of State who's in charge of elections said no towns don't have that power. The whole issue is ongoing and still unresolved. And at this point most folks are crossing their fingers for good weather this year.
[00:15:20] Some of this might sound intimidating and Margaret says that's one reason people give for not going through a deliberative session. But towns usually put out voter guides on their websites breaking down what's on the warrant and the warrants also available online.
[00:15:35] Here's Steven Buckley's suggestion.
Stephen Buckley: [00:15:37] Get the town report and read it. Every town must publish which has a wealth of information financial data reports from every board and commission all kinds of information from the town clerk and statistics is invaluable.
Archival: [00:15:57] I know that the fire department has been working on this has been monitoring worn out and it's under control. It's nothing compared to what a takeover would be like.
[00:16:10] It's a lot of work to do this. We understand that setting up the procedures and our policies is going to be huge.
Daniela Allee: [00:16:16] At their heart town meetings allow average nonelected folks like you and me to make decisions that shape the laws we follow. Just like the Puritans wanted and as memorialized in the Gilmore Girls comical representations of town meetings.
Archival: [00:16:30] It's not good right. All right everybody who agrees that we would not feel good about that say aye. Aye. Meeting adjourned, good night.