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Editorial: In Sanbornton, enough already

Back in 1995, New Hampshire communities were given the option of a new way to govern themselves: SB 2, which allowed residents to vote at the polls, rather than in town and school district meetings, on everything from local budgets to labor contracts and government policy.

Since then, Sanbornton has considered the issue 13 separate times, most recently last week. And 13 times, advocates for SB 2 have lost.

Our advice to them: Give it a rest.

We have never liked the SB 2 form of government, but that’s not the main reason for our suggestion. In Sanbornton, the issue has become divisive, disruptive and ugly.

In advance of last week’s vote there were road signs of questionable truthfulness, allegations of libel, accusations of lying, and hard feelings all around.

Surely there are better ways for Sanbornton residents to settle their disagreements. At the very least, a cooling off period would help.

Sanbornton is a community of just under 3,000 residents – different from the typical SB 2 community. SB 2 towns tend to be larger and faster-growing than their traditional meeting counterparts, according to research by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies. The switch has typically appealed to residents who feel their towns have literally outgrown town meeting – in large communities, the percentage of residents who could actually fit into a town hall or school gym is small. In effect, it’s a middle ground between traditional town meeting and representative democracy, as practiced by town or city council governments.

But in a very small community, like Sanbornton, the appeal of traditional town meeting is clear. Neighbors get to talk to neighbors, face to face, before making decisions. They get to hear directly from town or school officials. They may even hear arguments – about teachers’ salaries or police cruisers or land purchases – that change their view before they vote. Most important, they are likely to be better informed than residents in SB 2 communities who simply show up at the polls and attempt to wade through long, complicated warrants on their own.

A switch to SB 2 requires a 60 percent vote – a difficult hurdle, to be sure. In Sanbornton the vote has sometimes been achingly close to 50-50, frustrating SB 2 proponents time after time.

Those on the winning side in Sanbornton should take note of those close votes, of their disappointed neighbors, and ask themselves whether there are ways to improve their traditional town meeting, where turnout is often low. A different time or date? Better snacks or child care? And those on the losing end might ask themselves whether the vitriol that has surrounded this issue can be smoothed over. Civility has taken a beating in recent years; whatever form Sanbornton’s government takes, now and in the future, a common goal should be its restoration.

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