High court: Altering warrant articles okay if subject matter unchanged

  • gavel Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Monday, January 30, 2017

Voters at town meeting and deliberate session are free to rewrite petitioned warrant articles, even altering the “intent” of petitioners, as long as they don’t change the subject matter, the state Supreme Court has ruled in the latest argument over balancing the rights of different sets of annual meeting voters.

The court case was prompted by whether the police chief and welfare director in Deerfield should be appointed or elected, but the ruling applies to any town or school meeting operating under SB2, in which warrant articles are discussed and edited at deliberative sessions, a month before they are voted on by ballot.

“That’s not an uncommon issue: whether a particular (change to a warrant article) is germane. It’s hard. … I don’t think you and I, sitting down, could come up with an unequivocal rule on it,” said Barton Mayer, town attorney for Deerfield, who argued the case before the state Supreme Court.

The case in question was brought by Harriet Cady, who believes that two petitioned warrant articles were improperly changed at Deerfield town deliberative session last year. She argued the case herself with a brief before the state Supreme Court in November, and said she plans to ask for reconsideration of the ruling.

“I think the court is wrong,” she said Wednesday.

Cady pointed to Article 32 of the New Hampshire state constitution, which says in part “the people have a right … to assemble and consult upon the common good … and to request of the legislative body, by way of petition or remonstrance, redress of the wrongs done them, and of the grievances they suffer.”

“It says the people have a right to petition – it doesn’t say people have a right to change that petition,” she said.

In a unanimous decision written by Justice Robert Lynn, however, the court ruled that while state law says the “subject matter” of warrant articles cannot be changed, lawmakers think intent can be altered. In fact, the court noted that last year lawmakers turned down a bill, HB 1389, that would have prevented amendments “to change the subject matter or the intent.”

“For these reasons, we conclude that RSA 40:13, IV(c) prohibits only amendments that eliminate a warrant article’s textual subject matter, not amendments that may change the intent or purpose sought to be achieved by the article’s drafters,” the court wrote.

The petitioned warrant articles in question proposed making the police chief and welfare director jobs elected, rather than appointed. They were altered at deliberate session to say: “Shall we express an advisory view that the position … be an appointed position, as it is at the present time?”

Cady argued that this change, switching “elected” to “appointed,” illegally altered the petitioned article’s subject matter.

The court disagreed, writing: “The subject matter of the articles encompasses the broader question of how the town should fill those two municipal positions, i.e., by election or appointment. Therefore, because the amended warrant articles did not entirely eliminate the subject matter of the proposed warrant articles, the January 30 amendments do not violate (state law).”

As for Mayer, the town attorney, he doesn’t think this will stop the question being raised before lots of moderators in years to come – and he should know. As town attorney for dozens of communities, Mayer attends a lot of annual meetings.

“I’ve probably been to 150 meetings in my time,” he commented.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)