We’re in a pickle here in town because the Selectmen failed to hold a statutorily required public hearing on the $1 million bond/note (i.e., loan) that is needed for the library renovation project.
If, on March 14 at Town Meeting, the Selectmen and Town Moderator hold a vote on the library-addition article, that vote will have no legal bearing. It cannot, because there has been no prior public hearing. Without a prior, public hearing on the bond — WHICH IS REQUIRED BY LAW — the vote on the bond is not actionable.
The selectmen want to hold the public hearing on the loan after Town Meeting, even though the law requires the hearing to be held “at least 15 days, but not more than 60 days prior” to Town Meeting. Then they want to convene a special Town Meeting in April to vote — for real this time — on the library-addition article.
What the Selectmen didn’t say during this afternoon’s meeting is that a special, second Town Meeting cannot appropriate (i.e., decide to spend) any money unless the total number of ballots cast at the special Town Meeting is at least 1/2 the number of registered voters at the most recent, previous annual election. Perhaps the selectmen didn’t mention this because they don’t know about it.
Here is the relevant statute (emphasis added):
RSA 31:5 At Special Meetings. –
I. (a) No money shall be raised or appropriated or shall any appropriation previously made be reduced or rescinded at any special town meeting except by vote by ballot, nor unless the ballots cast at such meeting shall be equal in number to at least 1/2 of the number of legal voters borne on the checklist of the town entitled to vote at the annual or biennial election next preceding such special meeting; and such checklist, corrected according to law, shall be used at any meeting upon the request of 10 legal voters of the town. This section shall not apply to money to be raised for the public defense or any military purpose in time of war.
The phrase, “election next preceding such special meeting” is a little confusing at first. Does it mean “the next” election or the “preceding” election? What it means is the most recent — the closest — election that preceded the special election.
There were 1,973 registered voters at last year’s town election, according to the supervisors of the checklist. For the sake of argument, let us say that the same number of voters are on the checklist (i.e., voter roll) this year.
In order to pass the library-addition article at a special Town Meeting, at least 987 ballots would have to be cast.
Note that the requirement is 1/2 ballots cast, not voters in attendance.
I can tell you right now that I would attend such a special Town Meeting, but I would not cast a ballot, and I would implore anyone else in attendance who opposed the the library addition to also not cast a ballot.
So, practically speaking, if all of the Nay voters withheld their ballots, then 987 votes would have to be cast in favor in order for the article to pass.
It’s quite obvious why a special Town Meeting cannot legally raise or appropriate amounts of money (or reduce or rescind already appropriated money) unless the total ballots cast are at least equal to 1/2 the number of registered voters.
Absent that requirement, a very small number of voters could show up at the special Town Meeting and completely subvert the will of the regular Town Meeting. For instance, if 3o people showed up; it would take only 21 of them to reverse what 350 voters had decided the month before at the regular Town Meeting.
At the regular Town Meeting in 2015, the last time there was a warrant article for a new, $2.3 million library, there were 536 total ballots cast on the library article.¹
It is not realistic to believe that nearly a thousand ballots — almost twice as many as in 2015 — would be cast at a special Town Meeting.
- For that warrant article, there was a public bond/note hearing prior to Town Meeting, as required by law, on February 9, 2015.