Brushing Up Against The Voters

The Bartlett town meeting was a breeze last night, running about an hour and a half without any real controversy. I had figured it would be an easy meeting, so I brought my camera. Unfortunately because of how easy it was there was only one article that wasn’t settled by voice vote, so there wasn’t a lot of action. I did get to run around and shoot some fun photos, however, like this one. Left to right you are looking at Gene Chandler, the chairman of the board, town moderator Robert Clark, selectman Doug Garland and selectman David Patch.

This marks the end of the town meeting week, and the start of a week of vacation. When I get back Conway’s election will be in full swing (Conway is an SB-2 town). That will be undoubtedly more exciting.

Vacation, Candidates, and a lot more Radio

So I was gone last week out to Colorado for a family visit and some mountain fun. Now I’m back and things are no slower than when I left. Michelle Bachmann is going to be here this weekend, and I’m covering her visit for both the Sun and for NHPR. The day I got back a man’s body was pulled from the Swift River (always a depressing story), and the municipal budget cycle is starting to heat up.

I left for my week off amid another flurry of stories — Hurricane Irene, an NPR tape sync, coverage of an emergency town meeting — not really needing a vacation. The variety and the pace of coverage lately, from presidential candidates to a natural disaster to what at times appears to be impending economic doom, has kept me entertained. I go to work every day looking forward to what story I’m about to find. Sure, it was great to get away with my wife and visit my brother and his fiance, but it was a nice break, not a needed one.

I did, however, pack an extra radio story and some NPR work into that last week. Now I’m doing the same. I can’t help it though, when there is a chance to cover a cool story, I’m going. Now it’s just time to see what’s next.

One More Vote

Last night was the town election for Conway, and today was the final day (hopefully) of reporting on an event that have ebbed and flowed for more than two months. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to cover something else.

I got a call today from what sounded like an older woman. “I hope you’re proud of yourself for what you put in the paper,” she said. “You probably got fired from your last job.” Then she hung up.

I’m not really sure which story that call was in reference to, but I have a couple ideas. I ran all the candidates’ names through the court system and came out with a couple who had criminal records. I called both men and gave them a chance to explain what happened. One didn’t seem to care, but the other freaked. “How can you do this?” he said. “Are you trying to hurt me?” I heard from some people around town that he was not happy with the story in the paper, and that he felt like I shouldn’t have written it.

Normally I wouldn’t have much sympathy for that — if you don’t want your record examined don’t run for public office. But this guy really was driven to get this position, even though he was not likely to win at all. It was one of those cases when I could feel for the guy, but I wasn’t about to do anything different.

I’ve become used to criticism as a reporter. I’ve written a number of stories people don’t like. When I used to work at the Reporter, everyone had my cell phone number. I’d get calls at home from angry politician unhappy with how I wrote about them. At least now those calls go to the office.

I can hear that criticism, and I don’t mind airing it in public. I would have encouraged the woman to write a letter to the editor blasting me for the story, had she only stayed on the phone long enough for me to respond.

But she didn’t. Elections do that. They fire people up and get them breathing hard. And then I stand in their way for a quote. I can’t expect not to gett spit on once in a while. I’m just happy it only comes once a year…

Budgets and Stuff…

Ever put together a $33 million budget?

Me neither.

The budget process for towns and schools in New Hampshire is officially broken. Honestly, having come from a city form of government before this, the way they deal with things in towns is crazy.

Here’s the problem: there is a proposed budget, and a default budget. The proposed budget is what the town hopes to pass, and the default budget is a fallback budget, where last year’s budget is only increased by contractually obligated amounts.

Normally the proposed budget is more than the default budget. If voters don’t like it they can reject it. If voters add to the proposed budget that’s fine, because if the body politik as a whole doesn’t approve they can always fall back on the default budget.

These days, however, are not normal. Budgets are being slashed in the midst of one of the worst state and municipal budget crunches in decades. (I listened to a story on NPR about how bad it is just tonight on the ride home.) 60 Minutes had a segment about it a number of months ago. Things really are bad, particularly on the state and local levels, where politicians don’t have a treasury that can print money to fall back on.

So what have local lawmakers done? Slashed budgets. The proposed budgets for both the town of Conway and for SAU 9 were less than last year. Some of that was voluntary, and some of it was by force. Some departments did as they were requested by the boards overseeing the budgets, and some had their budgets cut without their approval. It got ugly at times.

But New Hampshire is about local democracy, so those cuts had to go before the voters. The voters with something to lose came out, and in both cases the cuts were restored. In the case of the town the cuts were restored and then some, but the towns budget is about one-third of the school, so less people got up in arms about it.

But therein lies the problem—remember the fallback budget, the default budget? It’s last year’s budget plus contractually obligated increases, right? So it’s last year’s budget plus a little. No big deal. But then take the proposed budgets, the cut budgets, and then add back the voters requests. Suddenly that proposed budget becomes last year’s budget, maybe plus a little. All the sudden there is no fallback. There is no option for people to turn to should they not approve of the proposed budget. There is one choice for voters, which equal to no choice.

Or there was a choice, but that choice was to show up to the deliberative portion of town meeting to fight for cuts or increases. Now that choice has passed, and there won’t be another shot at it.

But think about it: the newspaper says Budget Committee Cuts, If Passed, Will Eliminate 60 Jobs at the School. Who will come out for that meeting? The person who wants those cuts? No, they think “my elected representatives are doing what I want them to do, no reason to raise concern.”

No, it’s the people who want to fight the cuts that come out. That’s what happened with both the town and the school—people opposed to the cuts came out, and people in support of the cuts stayed home.

I know what you’re thinking, “maybe the town doesn’t really support these cuts.” But last November’s election argues that. Every election in the region went to conservatives. It seems strange all those same people would be looking to raise their taxes. And all the budget committee members and all the selectmen were struggling to be frugal—one would think the elected officials would be representative of the people that put them into office.

But the votes for both the town and the school were overwhelmingly in favor of giving them more money. That seems hard to believe, that a town would so wholeheartedly endorse higher taxes.

And if the voters who showed up at the meetings aren’t representative of the electorate as a whole, it’s too late now. The people will have two choices—vote for a little increase, or vote for a larger one. That, to me, is a broken system.

And it’s funny, I’m not against increased spending personally. But when I go to meetings (and I go to a lot of them) I hear a lot of citizens concerned about spiking property taxes and increases in local spending. I would wager it’s roughly equal to the number of people willing to watch their taxes go up for more services. But that isn’t the impression Conway’s form of government gives. It, unfortunately, has built-in assumptions about perpetually increasing budgets and a legislative format that brings out the special interest groups at the expense of the general public. It gives a disproportionate amount of power to the few, albiet at the fault of the many who don’t show up.

It’s been interesting to watch, but I’m not sure it’s good democracy. And that’s what it’s meant to preserve.

Just in case you missed the link, here’s the 60 Minutes segment about state debts:

What’s In a Committee?

It’s town meeting time, and with tight budgets around Conway that has meant fights all over the place. The budget committee has had several heated meetings, and the selectmen have gone the same way. The school board is struggling to keep their budget numbers up while people on all sides are looking for cuts, and the police are asking for more money to fund more officers at a time when other departments are cutting.

We were talking today about the role of the budget committee, which recommends final figures that then go to the voters and (if not revised) onto the ballot. The budget committee is supposed to be elected, but of the 11 person board (don’t quote me on that number, I’m just spouting here) only one was voted in. The rest were appointed, some by the budget committee itself.

Which raises an interesting question: what role does a self-appointed committee have in a democracy? It’s only self-appointed because there isn’t the interest among residents to fill the seats through elections, true, but the committee makes serious recommendations for the rest of the town and they are not appointed by the people.

Like with the school. The budget committee cut 11 percent from the school’s $33 million operating budget. The voters have the option to add back most but not all of that. $700,000 they just can’t get back. That means an 11 member board decided to cut the school budget, and even if the entire town showed up to protest the closest they could get is $700,000 less. Direct democracy could be restrained by a self-appointed group.

And who would people have to blame? Themselves. Anyone who wants to run can, but in the past they haven’t. This year, however, there is a lot of interest in civic duty. Maybe it comes with challenging times. It certainly has been interesting to report on, and it is only going to get more exciting.