I have searched through the minutes, but I cannot find an explaination for
the high signature thresholds for petitions/referrendum. (500/1250). This
seems much higher then other towns. Londonderry uses 1%/5% of the previous
registered voters, for example. If you beleive this high threshold is
necessary, you will need to get some info out the the public.
The number of signatures issue was discussed and debated on several
occasions, at length and with some passion. The Commission began by
reviewing the thresholds in other charter communities and attendance at the
polls and deliberative sessions and discerned that there were a couple of
A percentage of the total number of registered voters
A percentage of the voters who voted in the last municipal election
A definitive number.
However, the issue is deeper than mere numbers. The Commission expanded the
size of the governing body to offer the opportunity for wider community
participation by bringing a wider range of sentiments, ideas, experiences
and viewpoints to the Council. The Commission consciously made the decision
to have them elected at-large, so that they had to run before the whole town
and not a pocket of the community. They would have to consider the needs
and opinions of the whole town, not such the neighborhood that elected them.
Since their incumbency depended on serving the needs of the community, they
will be responsive to those needs or get bounced from office. At-large
representation also reduced the ability of a person to monopolize the seat
on the Council because they may pander to the interests of an insular
minority rather than consider and act on the interests of the entire
The Commission felt that the wider representation would be responsive to the
concerns of the community. The Council as the governing body would also
permit more timely action by not having to wait until April to put a measure
before the voters. This should encourage the Council to take action because
they can and don't have to wait for April.
The Commission tried to further ensure openness and access by requiring
certain procedures for the adoption of ordinances and the adoption of
procedures and rules that would require the Council to hear the voters. Any
Councilor may propose an ordinance at any time. The Commission feels that
peer and community pressure would encourage the Council to take up these
concerns and act on them. The Charter requires the Council to vote on
matters and, beginning with the Group petition (only 50 signatures), take
definitive action. The Charter also allows the Council to move ANY measure
to the ballot for voter action. The Initiative and Referendum petitions are
seen by the Commission as final steps in this mosaic, not as first steps.
Right now a lot of opponents of this see it as a first step because of the
need to garner 25 signatures to put ANY question before the voters.
The Commission also wanted to shorten the ballot to encourage more
participation at the polls. The Commission was cognizant of the voters'
frustration with placement of articles on the warrant which could not be
implemented because they were not legal or merely advisory. (Catch the
discussion at this evening's school deliberative session regarding the
withdrawal from the capital reserve fund for the sprinkler system and last
night's discussion on tolls) The Commission was also cognizant of the
frustration with nuisance or gadfly articles. (The article to require the
Selectmen to designate the Bradford Woods condos as a residential customer
to lower their cost for refuse removal. Clearly not possible, and a
designation made by the hauler. And the article 28 years ago to require
every property owner in town to have a hand gun for personal protection.)
Therefore, the Commission felt that petitioners should have wide community
support for their proposal. One of the reasons for this is that the
community elected the Council to conduct the affairs of the town as their
representatives and therefore, you are challenging the managers that you
elected. Interestingly, the Attorney General's office and the Secretary of
State's office concur with this analysis. It should take a fair number of
voters to initiate or overturn the actions of their duly elected
Which brings me to the next consideration. With these factors in mind, the
Commission looked at the numbers in each instance as they pertained to
Merrimack (population 27,000 with over 17,000 registered voters). Over 8400
voters voted in the last municipal election. The average participation at
the polls for the last five years has been around 3700. However, many
communities use high thresholds, typically ten and twenty percent. In every
instance the threshold for referendum petitions is higher than initiative
petitions because you are attempting to overturn the actions of a duly
elected body. Having a low threshold would likely encourage an insular
minority to try to overturn the actions of a body that was elected by many
more votes than the petition requirement. Then why have a governing body?
It would create popularity contests rather than governance. It would
perpetuate the type of proposals that have clogged the warrants in past
The Commission decided that a percentage of the total voters was just too
high a standard. This left the last two methodologies.
Given the concerns about council members not listening or proposing
unpopular or ill conceived actions, the Commission intends the initiative
and referendum processes to be a goad to take action at the Council level or
risk a petition drive that would cost a lot of money ($10K at a minimum for
the election alone) and might jeopardize their incumbency.
So the Commission began their discussion with percentages and definitive
numbers at fairly high levels, around 1250 and 2000, respectively. Higher
and lower numbers were proposed. In the end, it came down to the numbers in
the charter as a consensus of the Commission. Remember, that anything moved
to the Charter had to have two more votes than a simple majority (6 or 5
depending on the number of commissioners attending.) The subject was
revisited at least two more time after initial adoption.
The initiative and referendum processes are rarely used in Charter
communities in NH because the Council takes action before the process gets
to the point of gathering signatures. There is no doubt in our minds that
the zoning change at Exit 10 would have generated enough concern to garner
the 1250 signatures required to overturn an action of the Council.
Finally, if the voters feel that this is too high or too low (not likely) a
threshold, they can amend the Charter.
I trust that this gives you the information that you were seeking. Please
get back to us if you have any more questions or concerns.