Warner residents to vote on select board expansion to five members

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 02-12-2024 10:28 AM

Christine Frost recognizes the many duties of a select board member in Warner. Sometimes they need to know the role of a town librarian. Other times, they’re a town historian. And they’re often equal parts rule-setter and follower. She believes it’s a responsibility and workload that’s too great to divide among three people.

So on the ballot at Town Meeting in March, Warner residents will vote on a citizens’ petition to increase the board to five members.

“It is an enormous job that really could be spread among other people,” said Frost at a select board public hearing for the proposal last week. “Having more people with more in-depth knowledge of how the town is run would be super beneficial not only for the town but for everybody in the town to have more people that you could actually go to to get information.”

Similar to other citizens’ petitions, 25 signatures were required to place the warrant article on the Town Meeting ballot. But unlike other proposals, New Hampshire state law spells out the process for expanding a select board, writing a script for towns to follow when considering this option.

The language in the RSA is simple: “Are you in favor of increasing the board of selectmen to 5 members?”

The process, though, is more complicated.

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Once the petition is submitted, the select board must hold a public hearing within 10 days (but no later than the Thursday before Town Meeting).

If the motion is passed at Town Meeting, the changes do not take effect until the following year – when three names would appear on the ballot for two, three-year terms, and one, one-year term, to bring the board to five members.

And at any point, a petition following the same process can be brought forward to reduce the select board size from five back to three.

Although the state standard is for a three-person select board, doing so means that if two members see each other about town a meeting, a quorum is formed and no town business can be discussed outside of a posted, public meeting.

By state law, the role of a town administrator varies from a town manager. The administrator, which Warner has, is intended to serve as an aide to the select board, helping them carry out town business but with no authority to conduct business themselves. A manager, however, serves as the administrative lead of all town departments and can hire, fire and set salaries for employees.

The structure of three select board members puts pressure on a town administrator to serve more in the managerial role, said Frost.

Yet in recent years, the town has had turnover in maintaining a three-person board, said James Gaffney.

“We struggle just to fill the positions come election time year after year after year,” he said. “So if we expand that to five people, I have concerns that there won’t be anyone to run and we are just going to run into the same situation.”

Select board resignations and appointments consumed town affairs over the summer.

Frost first stepped into the role to fill the spot of someone who resigned ahead of Town Meeting in 2022. She then ran for a three-year term, but tendered her own resignation in July.

Following Frost’s resignation, Jody Sloane, another select board member at the time, also resigned. That left Harry Seidel the lone member, and he petitioned Merrimack Superior Court to appoint Faith Minton to the board to restore a quorum.

Together, Minton and Seidel filled the remaining seat, selecting Allan Brown to serve as the third member.

Both Minton and Brown will finish their terms at Town Meeting. The town will then elect two new members to join Seidel.

Minton has filed to remain on the board for the open one-year position. Michael Smith and Karen Coyne, who both put their names forward to fill the third seat in August, have also filed to be on the ballot at Town Meeting.

Coyne will run against Minton for the one-year position, while Smith put his name forward for the three-year seat.

In making the pitch for the board expansion, Frost pointed to neighboring towns with five-person boards like Henniker. Last year, residents in Andover also voted to increase their board size.

However, all three select board members in Warner voted to not recommend this warrant article on the Town Meeting ballot.

For Minton, it’s an unnecessary change at this time for the town, she said. And Seidel noted that an increased board would make decision-making more cumbersome and meeting times longer.

Brown knew the workload when he volunteered to step up in August. He’d previously served on the select board from 2014 to 2017. And the commitment and time should be known to people who put their name on the ballot for the role, he said.

“If you take this job you ought to be willing to do the work,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. It takes a lot of time… So when you sign up for the role you want to be prepared to fulfill the commitment.”