Issue of tallies up for local, state vote

MILFORD – A common sight on town and school district warrants in New Hampshire is a tally giving officials’ recommendations on each article.

To wit: “Selectmen voted 3-2 in support of purchasing a dump truck; the budget committee voted 4-1 against the purchase.”

The trouble is, under current state law, those “tallies” are technically illegal unless voters have given their permission for them to appear on the warrant.

In response, at least two local school districts will be asking voters for that permission this year.

However, a revision to the law that’s being pushed by a local state senator may make the question moot by Election Day.

>>Town Meeting ‘09<< Sen. Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, has filed legislation that would allow towns and schools to post the tallies without seeking voters' OK. Bragdon says he's "100 percent confident" his bill will pass by March. Government entities, such as the town of Milford and the Milford School District, have put tallies on the warrant for about ten years without the express legal authority to do so, said Bragdon, who is also the chairman of Milford School Board. "It gives the town and school board the flexibility they thought they had all along," Bragdon said of his bill, SB38. The warrant is different than the ballot. In an SB2 town, the warrant is the official notice of what's to be discussed at the deliberative session. The ballot is what's voted on in March. State law already allows tallies on the ballot. In 2007, the legislature rewrote state law to allow tallies only if residents vote to approve their placement on the warrant. Before the rewrite, state law didn't give towns and school districts any authority to put tallies on the warrant, although it was common practice in many communities. The state's Department of Revenue Administration warned the Milford School District not to put tallies in its warrant in a letter dated July 1, 2008. David Connell, a lawyer with the Local Government Center Staff, an entity that provides legal help to municipalities, said towns should ask voters to allow the tallies before putting them on the warrant. "It's the official way to do things," said Connell. "My encouragement would be to follow this procedure." Any town that doesn't follow the procedure is heading into "uncharted territory" and could risk litigation, said Connell. This year, the Amherst and Souhegan school districts have posted warrant articles seeking that permission. If they pass, the districts must put the tallies on in the future. The town of Milford, the Milford School District and the town of Amherst are not seeking permission. In theory, the penalty for disobeying the state is having the DRA declare the votes null and void, said Bragdon. However, DRA Municipal Services Assistant Director Don Borrer said the DRA would merely send the town or school a letter instructing them that tallies aren't allowed unless approved by voters. Many schools and towns got a similar letter last year, said Borrer. Bragdon said he is allowing tallies on the school board warrant because he is sure his bill will pass. Towns can face litigation over all kinds of things, said Connell. For example, Epping was sued by a taxpayers group for allegedly putting out biased information with taxpayer money. But Amherst Town Administrator Gary MacGuire said he consulted with town counsel and the DRA and concluded the tally warrant article isn't necessary. The town of Milford will also put tallies on its warrant articles because officials believe the tallies convey important information that help voters make their decisions.