Milford mulls governing options

MILFORD – Better the devil you know than the one you don’t. In a nutshell, that was the conclusion of the majority of a group that looked at whether Milford should change its form of government.

“It’s like the quote of Winston Churchill: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest,’ ” said Paul Bagley, who chaired the volunteer Government Study Committee. “No one was more opposed to SB2 (form of town meeting) than I was, when it started . . . . But when we saw the room for mischief (in changing), I think we should err on the side of caution.”

The committee was formed because of concern that SB2, of official ballot town meeting, wasn’t working as intended – particularly because of declining participation at deliberative session, where topics are discussed a month before voting day.

In a fact-laden report presented Monday to the Board of Selectmen, the nine-person committee reviewed the myriad forms that Milford town government could take. Nine different options exist in state law, including old-fashioned town meeting; SB2 town meeting (Milford’s current form); representative town meeting (used by some Vermont and Massachusetts towns); town council; and even mayor and city council.

In order for Milford to switch from its current form, a charter committee would have to be formed, draw up a new charter within the limits of state law, and then have it approved by Town Meeting.

In the end, the committee decided this was too drastic a step. Any changes, it said, should be done by tweaking SB2 in state law – such as combining the January public hearing and February deliberative session, which can dilute voter interest – or by increasing volunteer help for government functions. They also suggested shifting more day-to-day work, the sort done by the Board of Selectmen in the old days, onto town administration, freeing up selectmen for broader issues.

The report was accepted by the Board of Selectmen, which commissioned it. No immediate action was taken.

This committee’s opinion was not unanimous, however. The group split, 5-4, on whether Milford should establish a charter commission.

In a separate report, the minority group said its own uncertainty was an argument in favor of a commission.

“With the committee difference so close, the voters should have a say in the final decision,” the minority members wrote.

In particular, the minority group urged consideration of three changes that “offer the potential for meaningful improvement if developed in a properly designed town charter”:

– Representative town meeting, in which the whole town elects perhaps 200 to 300 people, who then gather together to vote on warrant items in a small version of traditional town meeting.

Under state law, this is allowed for towns but not school districts; no New Hampshire town uses it.

The majority responded there was no evidence this would increase participation.

– An official ballot town meeting similar to SB2, where ballot questions have multiple options – for example, several possible operating budgets – rather than just “take it or leave it” questions.

The majority argued that this could put into effect issues that were approved by less than the majority of voters.

– More geographic-based representation, such as wards for representative town meeting, to make sure all parts of town are involved.

The majority group was Bagley, Ernie Barrett, Peter Bragdon, Merv Newton and Margaret Price. The minority was George Carville, Wayne Hardy, Judy Plant and Gerald Reilly.

The Government Study Committee was formed last winter to fulfill a recommendation in the 2002 Master Plan update that suggested taking a look at the issue.

Several members and several selectmen said just having all the options delineated and laid out in a single report was valuable, if the issue is to be revisited.

“When should you look at this again?” asked Carvill, in response to a question from Selectman Noreen O’Connell. “It’s like a headache: You get a headache, you take some aspirin.

“If the board starts having more problems, you might want to take another look.”

The most obvious problems indicating flaws in the current form of government, Carvill said, were failure to pass articles at town meeting, failure to reach agreement on budgets between selectmen and the budget committee, and voters effectively killing warrant articles by “zeroing them out” – something that has seldom happened since Milford went to SB2 seven years ago.

The committee’s report also touched on a topic often brought up: population growth. The group noted that Nashua Regional Planning Commission projects of the town population show an increasing of just 1.5 percent a year over the next two decades, to a total of about 18,000 people by 2020.

“The projected increase in population did not appear to be unwieldy or unmanageable for any of the various forms of government considered,” the group wrote.