MERRIMACK CHARTER COMMISSION
AUGUST 23, 2005
Commission members present: Chairman Tom Mahon, Vice Chairman Heather Anderson, Peter Batula, Robert Kelley, Finlay Rothhaus, Tim Tenhave, Lon Woods, and David Yakuboff. Excused: Secretary Fran L’Heureux.
Chairman Mahon convened the meeting of the Charter Commission at 7:03 pm in the Conference Room of the Town Hall.
Chairman Tom Mahon noted that the Commission will hold a public hearing on September 13, 2005. He noted that the Commission would like to have comments from the public at that time.
Andrew Silvia questioned whether the options involved in a city form of government are to have either a weak mayor or a strong mayor. Tom Mahon noted that in the strong mayor form the mayor would be the administrator, whereas in the weak mayor form there would be a city manager who would be the administrator.
Chairman – The Chairman noted that questions have been posed to Attorney Krans. The calendar presented by the Commission complies with the statutory timeframe for the Commission’s work. The language in the charter may reference the relationship between the town, the School District, and the Merrimack Village District, but it cannot change their relationship. The Budget Committee may be removed by charter and the governing body must take up the powers currently held by the Budget Committee.
Vice Chairman – The Vice Chairman had nothing further to report this evening.
Introduction of and Dialogue with Guests:
School Board Members - Chairman Mahon noted that concern has been conveyed regarding the relationship between the charter and the School Board. He questioned whether School Board members had any other concerns or issues.
Rose Robertson-Smith noted that the School Board has made great strides in working together with other town entities. The School Board, she noted, would like to keep these relationships. Heather Anderson noted that in Londonderry there is a Capital Planning Committee comprising members of the council, staff and others which is able to create budgets for cross-functional planning. Ms. Robertson-Smith noted that some of this cross-functional planning already happens here in Merrimack. Tom Mahon noted that the timing of the elections needs to be considered in the possible new charter.
David Denton noted that Londonderry has had problems funding their schools. The School Board is still working under SB2. Any change may cause confusion. This is of interest to the School Board. The School Board has not discussed what it will do if the charter is changed. He noted that the deliberative session under SB2 is flawed, but the balloting is good, although the ballots are too long. He noted he feels that Merrimack needs a new type of government.
Mr. Mahon noted that a preliminary report must be submitted to the voters by December 18, 2005. The final report is due by February 1, 2006.
Tim Tenhave questioned whether the School Board has received feedback from other School Boards on how other town’s governments make the School Board’s job harder or easier. Mr. Denton noted that this issue has not been discussed with other members of other School Boards. He noted that most of the discussion with other School Board members has been issue specific. Ms. Robertson-Smith noted that most of the interaction among School Board members has been at their School Board convention. Ms. Anderson noted that the Commission is also tasked with looking at what doesn’t currently work.
Mr. Denton noted he is not a big fan of the Budget Committee. He noted that sometimes this Committee doesn’t work as well as he thinks it should. Mr. Mahon noted if there was no Budget Committee the budget would need to be presented to the annual meeting of the School District. Mr. Denton noted that a lot of manpower and hours go into the preparation of the budget for the presentation to the Budget Committee.
Merrimack Village District Commissioners – James O’Neil noted that the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners sends his regrets that he was unable to attend this evening’s meeting. He noted that the MVD has had a good relationship with the town and the School District. He would like to keep these relationships. He would not like to change the organization of the MVD. He noted that no tax money is involved in the running of the MVD. Tom Mahon noted that any charter change would have a minimal impact on the MVD elections. Walter Talbert noted that the MVD goes through the Budget Committee process. Mr. O’Neil noted that the Budget Committee is not a bad thing; there have been good Budget Committees and bad Budget Committees. William Pockl noted that the Budget Committee is a watchdog committee with oversight powers.
Heather Anderson questioned the time spent for the Budget Committee process. Mr. O’Neil noted that the staff spends about 50% more time on the budget in preparation for the Budget Committee process.
Tim Tenhave questioned whether the Commissioners have seen the Budget Committee make substantial changes in the budgets. Mr. O’Neil noted that some committees say that as long as the increase keeps to a particular figure the budget is okay, while some committees make changes and others put money back in the budgets over changes made by the School Board and Board of Selectmen.
Lon Woods questioned whether questions from the Budget Committee have been an expense to the MVD. Mr. O’Neil noted that such questions have taken time from the staff, but questions now go through the chairman of the Budget Committee. He noted it is good to bring the Budget Committee into the process as early as possible. Mr. Talbert noted that the town and school district are on a different schedule than the MVD. He noted that the Budget Committee is a good committee for oversight.
Mr. Tenhave questioned whether other Village Districts feel that a specific form of government is better. Mr. Talbert noted that every water district seems to operate differently. Mr. Pockl noted that most of the MVD’s interaction with other Village Districts is in reference to legislation.
Ms. Anderson questioned what works well and what doesn’t. Mr. O’Neil noted that everything works well until someone doesn’t get what they want. He noted there is a need for the voters to participate. He noted that most of the people who complain do not vote. Finlay Rothhaus noted that town administrators have advocated for less participation from voters to make things run more smoothly. Mr. O’Neil noted he does not want to lose the ability to state his opinion on any issue. Mr. Talbert noted that democracy runs slowly. He noted that he likes the current form of government.
Mr. O’Neil noted that people have indicated to him that they would like to vote on representatives by wards. Mr. Talbert noted that wards can be controlled. Mr. O’Neil noted that he has never felt that “at large” members do not have the best interests of the town at heart.
Town Clerk, Supervisors of the Checklist, Town Moderator – Tom Mahon noted he had a brief discussion with Town Clerk Diane Trippett. He noted that the town charter must address election issues. He questioned the impact of a change in charter on the election process. Diane Trippett noted that the Town Clerk’s office will do whatever needs to be done if a change is made.
Town Moderator Lynn Christensen noted that an attempt was made to break the town into districts. This effort was defeated overwhelmingly. The addition of polling places was a concern to the townspeople. The townspeople did not want the town in an adversarial position. Ms. Christensen noted there are issues which will polarize the town if it is broken up into districts.
Mr. Mahon questioned the financial impact of three polling places. Ms. Christensen noted there is some impact, but the impact is not a one on one impact. Ms. Trippett noted there is an increase in personnel.
David Yakuboff questioned when wards were defeated. Ms. Christensen noted that this voting took place within the last ten years. Mr. Yakuboff questioned whether this change would be acceptable now. Ms. Christensen noted that the issue of the additional polling places, which are in use, is still being discussed.
Peter Batula questioned whether there has been discussion of other types of government at the annual town clerk seminars. Ms. Trippett noted that at the last seminar which she attended there were 19 people who represented 12 different forms of government. There are pros and cons to all of the forms of government. She noted that there is no form that has jumped out as the one she wants.
Mr. Tenhave noted that the position of Town Clerk is elected, but not very political. He questioned whether politics affects the position. Ms. Trippett noted she tries to be apolitical. Ms. Christensen noted she is also careful not to express an opinion. She noted that her impartiality is important. Mr. Tenhave noted the Commission can look at an elected versus an appointed position. Mr. Mahon noted that in the city form the town clerk is appointed not elected.
Ms. Christensen noted there are some issues with SB2. The town ballot is too long. According to statute each voter is only allowed 10 minutes in the booth unless there is a line at which time the voter is only allowed 5 minutes in the booth. This rule is not enforced. The town receives a lot of ballots from people who do not vote on a lot of issues. She questioned whether all of these articles are really needed on the ballot. She noted that some blank ballots have been submitted.
Ms. Trippett noted that the town clerk’s office has received complaints regarding the length of the ballots. The town has a large percentage of people who have relocated. A larger percentage of the voting population does not understand the process.
Mr. Tenhave questioned whether there are any suggestions as to how to reduce the length of the ballot. Ms. Christensen noted the town might look at the types of questions that appear on the ballot and how the questions go on the ballot. Ms. Trippett noted that the length of the ballot impacts the cost of the election.
Library Trustees – Pat Heinrich noted that the voters want to vote. She noted that as School District Moderator she tries hard to be impartial. She noted that people come to the deliberative session when there is a problem.
Mrs. Heinrich noted that the charter would determine how the library trustees are chosen. The library trustees like the town meeting. The library budget is under SB2. It is buried in the town budget.
Carol Lang noted there is no ideal solution. Merrimack is too large for the old town meeting form. There are problems with SB2 including the long time before the town can react to changes. She noted that the people do want to vote. They vote on what they are concerned about. She questioned whether there is a possibility of allowing the governing body to call one special meeting without an emergency.
Mrs. Heinrich noted that the library trustees present their budget to the Budget Committee. The trustees are never sure how the Budget Committee will vote. The Budget Committee seems less intimidating than a city council would be.
Mr. Tenhave questioned whether the library is under the administration of the Town Manger. Mrs. Heinrich noted that the library works in cooperation with all town departments. It uses the town as its check book.
Mr. Woods questioned whether the trustees feel that a city council of 15 would be a good thing. Mrs. Heinrich noted she could not imagine a council of 15. She noted she thinks the issue is the trappings of the council. Mrs. Lang noted that the fact that you have to convince 15 members of the Budget Committee that your budget is a good one is a check in the system.
Ms. Anderson questioned why there is a boundary between the town and the library. Mrs. Heinrich noted this was created in the 1800s. She was not sure of the reasoning at the time, but it might have to do with the fact that at that time many libraries were private rather than public. She noted she is happy with this division as the town and library have different focuses. Mrs. Lang noted that it is not reasonable to expect council members to be knowledgeable about library issues.
Budget Committee – Stan Heinrich noted that technically the Budget Committee prepares the budgets. The Budget Committee meetings give the townspeople the opportunity to make comments on the budgets. The recommendations and vote counts of the Budget Committee are on the ballots. The Budget Committee meetings are carried on the town’s cable channel. The Budget Committee spends a lot of time on the issues. The committee is one of oversight. If there was no Budget Committee the town would lose the extra sets of eyes and the time for the public to express themselves. He noted he does not feel that the current form of government is broken.
Carol Lang noted she feels more connected and more a part of Merrimack than any other form of government she has lived under. She noted that townspeople can get as involved as they wish to get. She noted it would be a shame to lose this.
Norm Phillips noted that the budgets brought before the Budget Committee are well thought out. The preparers are very conscientious. The Budget Committee seldom makes drastic changes. The ability of the townspeople to create and submit petitioned warrant articles is the strongest democratic item in this form of government. This is a very powerful tool. He noted he hopes this item is preserved. Finlay Rothhaus questioned whether 25 signatures on a petition is too few. Mr. Phillips felt this was just the right number.
Mr. Heinrich noted it would be helpful if the articles on the ballots could be shortened to shorten the ballot. Mr. Mahon noted the town has no control over the length of the articles as the language is governed by regulations from the legislature. If articles are shortened there might be an attempt to skew the intent of the article.
Mr. Heinrich noted that the town has made changes to recommendations made by the Budget Committee. He noted that in the past it was more difficult to get some details from the entities presenting the budgets to the Committee. These details are more easily obtained now. There are some issues over which no one has any control. The type of government does not matter. The government must be accessible to the townspeople.
Mr. Tenhave questioned whether changing a budget gives the Budget Committee a larger role than if the Committee was an oversight board. Mr. Heinrich noted that the Committee’s job is to look at the budgets and to justify the use of the money involved. The Budget Committee must make sure there is enough money available to run the entity. Mr. Phillips noted that the Budget Committee looks at the bottom line of the budgets, but also looks at the line items. Mrs. Lang noted that the Committee makes sure that all of the pieces make sense in terms of the bottom line. This oversight causes the governmental entities to look at all of the line items. The Budget Committee can look at the big picture as it has a broader view of the town in general. Mr. Heinrich noted that for the most part the entities look at the recommendations of the Budget Committee. These recommendations give the governing bodies some direction.
David Yakuboff questioned what can be tweaked. Mr. Heinrich noted that the Deliberative Session can be tweaked. He noted that the governmental entities should be given more latitude to get information to the voters and the ballots should be made shorter.
Mr. Tenhave noted that some town administrators feel that the Budget Committee is cumbersome. He questioned whether the Budget Committee could as an oversight, advisory committee. Mr. Heinrich noted he thinks the Municipal Budget Act works. He noted if this Committee is an oversight committee only, it loses its importance. Mrs. Lang noted that an advisory Budget Committee defeats the purpose of the Budget Committee. She noted that the current Budget Committee process may be tedious, but it creates better budgets in the long run.
Ms. Anderson questioned the amount of hours spent in the Budget Committee process. Mr. Heinrich noted that the Committee meets to review the budgets beginning in December and ending in February. The Committee meets 1-2 nights per week for the School District and the Town. The Committee meets twice with the Merrimack Village District. If there are a number of Warrant Articles there may be additional time. The Committee makes an effort to ask people to come to the meetings. The Committee has a quiet time from March to October. Mr. Phillips noted that members spend about 100 hours working for the Committee. New members may spend more time.
Ms. Anderson questioned how many people attend Budget Committee meetings. Mr. Heinrich noted the Committee tried to get people to talk to the Warrant Articles. The debate on these articles was not cut off. Mr. Mahon questioned whether the people encouraged to come to the meetings to talk about the Warrant Articles were the people involved in the articles. Mr. Heinrich noted that this was not necessarily the case. He noted that more people came to the meetings this year than in years past. There were more people than usual, but not as many as the Budget Committee would like to see.
Mrs. Lang noted that the Budget Committee spends more time on issues that have more impact on the tax rate. Mr. Phillips noted that the Budget Committee likes to make sure that the department heads understand the reason for the expenditures in the budgets.
Mr. Mahon questioned which form of government would reduce participation by the public. Mr. Heinrich noted that the city council would reduce this participation. Mr. Mahon noted that there is the same complaint about the current form even with many opportunities to participate. Mrs. Lang noted she would like to keep the current form with minor changes.
Ms. Anderson noted that with a town council the town could still have SB2 and a budgetary council. She noted there are opportunities to continue doing what we currently do with a different governing body. She noted that information on the forms of government is available on the Charter Commission website.
Mr. Yakuboff noted that the voters need to participate and look at the information available. The voters need to look at which form is best for the town of Merrimack. The voters want an option and they can decide if they want the option presented by the Charter Commission.
Peter Batula questioned at what point should a town become something else. He questioned whether a town can function with 50,000 people. Mr. Mahon noted that Salem and Derry are larger towns, and that Londonderry is about the same size as Merrimack.
Introduction of and dialogue with Members of the Board of Selectmen
No members of the Board of Selectmen were present. Peter Batula noted that the members of the Board of Selectmen were invited but did not show.
Review of Progress & Research
Discussion of Any Outstanding Research/Remaining Questions
Preparations for Recommendation Discussion
These issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Charter Commission.
Minutes of August 9, 2005 & August 18, 2005
A motion was made by Lon Woods and seconded by David Yakuboff to accept the minutes of August 9, 2005 as prepared and presented. The motion passed 8-0-0.
A motion was made by Lon Woods and seconded by Robert Kelley to accept the minutes of August 18, 2005 as prepared and presented. The motion passed 8-0-0.
There was no other business at this time.
Questions from the Press
There were no questions from the press at this time.
Comments from the Commission
Chairman Mahon noted that he would have full sub-committee report summaries for the next meeting of the Commission. He has also asked Attorney Krans to come to the next meeting.
Heather Anderson questioned whether there is information or questions among the members to which the Committee should seek answers. Peter Batula noted he is looking for information on the process for the eventual vote. He questioned whether the Commission will vote on whether there will be a change or on the types of governments. Mr. Mahon noted he feels that there will be an initial vote on whether there should be a change. If this vote is in the affirmative then they Commission will vote on which type of government to recommend. Mr. Batula questioned what will happen if the initial vote is “no”. Mr. Mahon noted that the Commission would be able to get the draft report to the Board of Selectmen early. Finlay Rothhaus noted he sees this process as funneling down to a decision. David Yakuboff noted the town appears to expect an option from this Commission. He noted that if there is no option brought forward, then the Commission has failed in its task.
Mr. Mahon noted the hour and the Commission’s procedure to complete a meeting by 10 PM. Mr. Mahon noted that the Commission is having a needed dialogue and a motion to suspend the rules is in order.
A motion was made by Tim Tenhave and seconded by Heather Anderson to suspend the rules and continue the meeting for an additional 30 minutes. The motion passed 8-0-0.
Ms. Anderson noted that she agrees with David Yakuboff. She noted it behooves the Commission to give the electorate a choice. She noted if the electorate does not choose the option presented then the town stays as it is.
Mr. Tenhave noted he does not feel that if there is no option that the Commission has failed. He noted he personally believes that a charter is necessary.
Mr. Mahon noted there will be a public hearing to get the sense of the public. This will help the Commission to see if they are on the right track. The Commission has until December 18, 2005 to pull something together. It has until February 1, 2006 to finish its job. He noted that nothing is set in stone until February 1, 2006. He noted there is less flexibility in the process later on.
Ms. Anderson noted the concern express regarding revisiting an issue on which the Commission has decided. She noted there may be a need to recraft portions of the Charter upon which the Commission has already decided.
Mr. Mahon noted that the Commission has to take the first step of deciding whether or not a Charter should be written. The Commission, if the answer is “yes”, can then determine whether the new form of government should be a town or a city form. The Commission will need to provide an explanation of its decision. He noted he agrees that the electorate is looking for an option.
A motion was made by David Yakuboff and seconded by Robert Kelley to move that a charter be drafted by the Charter Commission. The motion passed 8-0-0.
Mr. Tenhave noted that the Commission needs to discuss what is wrong or inadequate with the current form of government. He noted it is unfortunate that no members of the Board of Selectmen appeared before the Commission this evening.
A motion was made by Tim Tenhave and seconded by Finlay Rothhaus to ask the members of the Board of Selectmen to appear before the Charter Commission on or before September 6, 2005.
Mr. Tenhave noted that this would give the Chairman of the Board of Selectmen a change to address the Charter Commission. He noted if the Commission asks the Board again to appear it will let the Board know that the Commission wants to cooperate with them.
The motion passed 6-2-0.
Lon Woods questioned whether members of the Board would be willing to respond in writing if they are unable to come to the Commission meeting.
Ms. Anderson noted there will be continual opportunities to give input via public hearings and public comments.
Mr. Tenhave noted that he accidentally omitted the Heritage Commission from his presentation at last week’s meeting.
A motion was made by Lon Woods and seconded by Peter Batula to adjourn the meeting at 10:25 pm. The motion passed 8-0-0.
Rita Carlton, Recording Secretary