Your Primer on Local Government

“Freedom of Speech” by Norman Rockwell. Norman Rockwell Museum.

Town meeting is still two months away, but January is the month when the warrant (or slate of articles to be voted on) is prepared and candidates line up to fill vacancies on several boards. Unless you live in a city (there are thirteen in the state), an unincorporated township (there are twenty-five of those), or a large town with a town-council, town meeting affects you. Buckle up for a primer on local government in New Hampshire’s “little republics.”

Town meeting is scheduled for the second Tuesday in March. This date makes little sense from a modern financial standpoint (our fiscal years don’t go from March to March), but tradition is tradition. Some towns have pushed town meetings to early summer to accommodate snow birds and to reflect more accurate fiscal projections. Some towns have also made town meetings on Saturdays, assuming more people will show up. But again, tradition is tradition, and most voters will meet on March 14th.

At town meeting, residents vote to fill positions in local government (a list follows below), go through the town’s proposed operating budget, and vote on a variety of warrant articles that have either been suggested by the selectmen or petitioned by residents. These articles can range from the mundane – $20,000 to go toward the purchase of a new police cruiser – to the bizarre – my town historically has articles calling for the town to become a “United Nations Free Zone.” That never passes. But when you only need twenty signatures to petition for an article, anything can happen.

In a traditional town meeting format, flannel wearing members of society can amend articles and budgets as they go. So, if a faction of voters would like to add $500 to the recreation committee’s budget, you can do that. Or, if unhappy voters wish to subtract $15,000 from the highway department, you can do that, too. Some towns iron out all the bad feelings at town meeting with a potluck. No ill will survives after crockpots of mini meatballs.

Unless the matter is too divisive for mini meatballs. That’s why some towns have switched from traditional town meetings to something called SB 2 format. Towns that have adopted SB 2 vote on warrant articles by ballot. Amendments to warrant articles and budgets happen at a deliberative session on a weekend in February. Those edited articles appear on ballots on town meeting day. SB 2 allows for greater participation and can eliminate peer pressure from old Yankees who refuse to accept that fifty-year-old dump trucks may need replacement.

Other towns prefer the traditional town meeting because everyone is in the same room at the same time; everyone is educated on what certain articles mean, their origins, etc. And, because, you know, it’s tradition.

(Oh, and did I mention that this whole thing goes for school districts, too? School districts have their own deliberative sessions and ballots.)

Budgets and reports of town departments are published annually in a town’s annual report, provided at least one week before town meeting. This document provides voters with information from which they can make informed decisions (i.e. how many patrons the library served, what the county tax rate was, or how many miles of road the highway department paved).

Lastly, a plug for town government. Local government works best when good people dedicate their time and energy to fulfilling the duties of a variety of boards. These are largely volunteer positions, but they can make a big impact on how we travel to work, bury our loved ones, celebrate holidays, or use our libraries. Now, all towns don’t have all boards, and some boards have slightly different responsibilities, but this is a sampling of your options.

Candidates must file by the end of January (typically), so if you’re interested in getting involved, consider throwing your hat in the ring for:

Selectman/Selectwoman

This board of three or five members runs the town. They have several meetings each month, where they discuss and vote on financial matters, neighborly concerns (junk yards, noise complaints), status of town departments, and a host of other concerns. Some duties can be farmed out, like assessing property or perambulating town lines, but any way you slice it, a selectperson bears a lot of responsibility. It helps to be retired or have a job with flexible hours. It also helps to have thick skin.

Town Clerk

Town clerks maintain town records, make official reports, and record voting results. They’re the person you go to for registering your car or getting a marriage license. Oftentimes, town clerks are combined with the tax collector.  

Tax Collector

The tax collector has the unpopular, but important, job of collecting property taxes. It helps when tax collectors offer a candy dish.

Treasurer

The treasurer and tax collector work in tandem to ensure money is coming in and proper payments are going out.

Moderator

This is the person who moderates the town meeting or deliberative session. They call the votes, tally the votes, ask for people to behave, and set the procedure of the meeting. This can be a stressful job and is best reserved for those with a penchant for rule following and memorization of state laws. Retired teachers and cops do well as moderators.

Budget Committee

Both the budget committee and the board of selectmen develop budgets for the town. The idea of the budget committee is to provide an additional set of eyes on how the town spends taxpayer dollars.

Cemetery Trustee

These men and women manage the operation of cemeteries with help from town funds and the trusts left behind by generations of residents. It’s not necessarily a morbid job – cemeteries can be important public spaces in town – and maintenance is an important sign of respect to the families of those interred there.

Library Trustee

This board manages the operation of the library; duties include hiring library staff, releasing funds for the purchase of media, and planning for the future of the library (library expansions are common).

Trustees of the Trust Funds

Over time, towns acquire funds from residents that accrue interest. Even in the smallest of towns, these funds can surpass one million dollars. Trustees manage this money and disseminate it according to the deceased’s intentions (i.e. to the cemetery trustees or to folks who need medical assistance).

Road Agent

Maybe the most important person in town, the road agent manages the network of paved and dirt roads in town. He or she hires a crew to grade roads, pave roads, build bridges, install culverts, mow roadsides, and plow snow. In some cases, the highway department may also be in charge of the transfer station and/or cemeteries.

Conservation Commission

This board works to protect a town’s natural resources. Some are very active: they make trails and maps, lead hikes, and purchase (or solicit) land to conserve. Others are less active, but nonetheless advocate for land conservation or wetlands protection.

Heritage Commission

Like the conservation commission, but for the historic built environment, this board advocates for the preservation of landmarks, surveys buildings, holds preservation easements, or – if combined with a historic district commission – enforce ordinances for a historically-designated area of town.

Recreation Commission

This board is the party committee. They plan town events, host holiday parties, allocate funds for swim lessons, and/or manage park space.

Planning Board

This board is responsible for ensuring the town is following its master plan, re: investing money in infrastructure projects, approving driveway/septic/subdivision plans, and proposing zoning amendments (if your town has zoning). If you’re a long-term thinker and are interested in how people interact with the land, planning board could be for you.

Zoning Board

This board monitors and enforces zoning regulations, granting variances to landowners as needed.

I hope you’re impressed with how much work goes into running even the smallest of towns. And this list isn’t actually exhaustive – there are more boards that some towns may have: historic district commission, energy commission, agricultural commission, housing commission, school board, supervisors of the checklist…

For more information, visit the New Hampshire Municipal Association’s website, which includes in-depth descriptions of these positions (books are also available at your town office, and sometimes library). Also visit your town offices, where vacancies of these positions will be posted. Ask around at the library, town office, general store, dump, or post office for scuttlebutt on who plans to run and which departments most need candidates.

There’s something for everyone. Even you!

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.