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Editorial: Just in time: Seven tips for town meeting

Today marks the official kickoff to New Hampshire town meeting season – there are local elections galore, complicated ballot issues at the polls and several hot meetings scheduled for this evening. If you’re new to all this, or have been away from the local scene in recent years, we encourage you to vote, to attend your local meeting, to participate. Need some tips? Here are seven:

1. Arrive at your meeting a little early. Sure, the main event will be the big budget vote or teachers’ contract debate. But town meetings also serve a social purpose. No doubt there are neighbors you haven’t seen since before the first big snowstorm of the season. Take some time to reconnect.

2. Don’t leave too soon. It’s possible that only one or two issues on that long, long town warrant really capture your attention. There seems to be every incentive to quietly sneak out once the votes on those items have been taken. But caution: Unless you successfully make one of those tricky motions to prohibit the issues being reconsidered hours (or days) later, you’re not home free. Anything could happen – and sometimes anything does.

3. Don’t be too hard on the selectmen or school board. Sure, the budget might be up dramatically. No, your salary probably isn’t. But some of the most significant spending increases on the local level this year are frustratingly out of the hands of local officials. New retirement system responsibilities – once shouldered by the state and recently downshifted to local governments – and the increasing cost of health insurance are driving budgets up everywhere. The numbers are big – and difficult to offset.

4. Beware the high-tech presentation. At one meeting last year we were impressed by a razzle-dazzle pitch for a road-paving project. The advocates had used an iPad to film a trip down one of the worst roads in town as seen from the driver’s seat and then projected the movie on a screen at town meeting: frost heaves, potholes, crumbling surfaces, you name it. The audience was wowed – not to mention queasy. But keep your wits about you. Regardless of the showmanship, the questions remain the same: Can you afford to pay for it? Can you afford not to?

5. Beware the knitters. Sure, the guy with the scowl on his face and the calculator in his lap is plotting a game-changing budget amendment – that’s obvious. But don’t be so sure the woman who appears focused on her half-finished baby sweater doesn’t have just the same thing in mind. Knitters are crafty. They can concentrate on two things at once, and they usually do.

6. Know the lingo. If you’re new to town meeting, this is some of what you might hear: Don’t put the cart before the horse! We want a Chevy, not a Cadillac! Do it for the sake of the children – they’re our future! Back in my day . . . ! Ballot vote! And, most of all, Move the Question!

7. Really listen to your neighbors. Every town has a guy who makes the same budget-cutting plea every single year. Every community has a woman who pleads without fail for more money for the library. Every district has voters who use the annual opportunity before a captive audience to grouse about the school board. And yet, once in a great while, there comes a speaker who says something unexpected, something smart, something that changes the minds of his or her neighbors – something that actually sways the vote in a surprising way. It’s the sort of moment that town meeting fans live for, real democracy in action. Listen hard, voters, it might just happen in your town tonight.

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