Council Won’t Move Illegal Petition Articles to Ballot

Only two of five warrant article petitions submitted for inclusion on the Town’s fiscal year 2017 Warrant were deemed legal, despite the Town’s offer to have the Town Attorney review any proposed articles, free of charge to the petitioner.

Petitions that were not moved to the ballot are: two petitions Richard Bielinski of ?89 Hall Road submitted related to the creation and dissolution of Tax Increment Finance (TIF) Districts, as well as one petition submitted by Deb Paul, publisher of the Londonderry Times, to ask the Londonderry Town Council to open the Londonderry Town Charter for review. That review would be in compliance with State law and procedure, should the Town Council honor the will of the voters.

“You would not be voting for something that exists in law. There’s no charter or statutory vehicle for this, it simply does not exist,” Attorney Mike Ramsdell said of Paul’s petition to open the Town Charter for review.

Ramsdell explained at the Council’s Jan. 18 public hearing on the Warrant that there are very specific processes for Charter revisions or Charter amendments.

“A Town Charter revision literally changes the form of government,” he said. “A Town Charter amendment is very specific and it can have more than one amendment, but each has to cover a finite single topic. Someone could ask for a Charter Commission to revise the Town Charter, or Charter amendments proposed, but there are very specific processes for that.”

After considering Paul’s first proposed article, “to see if the voters will recommend to the Town Council to propose an amendment to the Town Charter to set term-limits on appointments to all non-land use boards,” the Council voted 5-0 to move the question to the Warrant.

The Article is “unusual, but not unlawful,” according to Ramsdell, who is the Town’s attorney.

“All the petitioner is asking is for the voters to recommend the Council propose something. But even if the voters recommend it, the Council is not required to do it,” he said. “I would suggest the Charter provides a much more efficient way of doing this, like bringing it up in the public comment section of a Council meeting.”

Council members expressed frustration that petitioners didn’t ensure the language of their warrant articles was legally sound before getting their signatures and submitting them to the Clerk.

Ramsdell advised the Council that the conservative thing to do would be to move the illegal articles to the Warrant, but said he would defend in court that the articles are in fact illegal.

If the courts found the petitions were in fact legal, the Town would be in violation of regulations requiring them to move forward legal warrant article petitions.

The Council ultimately decided not to move the articles forward, with Councilor Tom Dolan arguing that moving the articles forward would cause anger and frustration with voters who supported the illegal articles, only to learn after the election that they couldn’t be legally implemented.

Ramsdell said Paul did seek advice for the petition on recommending the Council propose an amendment to the Town Charter to establish term limits for volunteer boards, and he offered language in that case.

“The second one I never saw language (for) until the petition was already submitted,” he said.

Paul said it was recommended to her that if she wanted to propose term limits, the change would require opening the Town Charter.

“That’s why I asked at a Town Council meeting under public comment what they think about the proposal,” she said.

With regard to her petition to open the Charter, Paul said, “I was exercising everything it was recommended I do.”

After sending the petition to Town Manager Kevin Smith, Paul said several days went by and she assumed the language of her petition was sound.

“I take responsibility for that. I assumed it was OK, so I started getting signatures on it,” she said. “When I dropped off my petitions, the Clerk just took both of them. I don’t think you can collect signatures and not do something with it, but no one seemed to know that process. I think we only have a few keepers of the information and they don’t want to share this information with everyone. I sincerely believe having these term limits will make us a better community.”

Ramsdell and Smith said Bielinski also submitted for review his warrant article petitions to dissolve all TIF Districts and revitalization districts and to require a ballot vote to establish any new TIFs, but he decided to move forward with gathering signatures despite Ramsdell’s advice that the articles are illegal.

In considering a warrant article petition submitted by School Board member John Laferriere to address the heroin and opioid crisis in Londonderry, the Council decided to move forward a revised version of his citizen’s petition, asking the voters if they want to raise and appropriate $50,000 to establish an “addiction and counseling program for families in need,” rather than reestablishing the Family Remediation Program,” as Laferriere proposed.

The Council’s proposed article also eliminates a portion of Laferriere’s article that would establish a special revenue fund to allow and accept gifts, donations and grants to support the Family Mediation Program, which Smith said the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration said could not be legally accomplished through a warrant article.

The Council voted 5-0 to move the revised article and Laferriere’s article to the ballot, recommending the revised article with a 5-0 vote and voting against Laferriere’s article 0-5.

Laferriere said he would propose at Deliberative Session defunding his article. According to Laferriere, the purpose of the article is to create a town-wide, comprehensive approach to addressing heroin and opioid abuse in the community, which Police Chief Bill Hart called “a crisis.”

“If there were this kind of program available for first-time offenders, I can tell you we would use it,” Hart said.

Also discussed during the Jan. 18 public hearing on the Town’s FY17 Warrant was Article 11, to place annually not more than $100,000 from the Land Use Change Tax in the Conservation Fund, with the balance to be placed in the General Fund.

Noting 100 percent of the Land Use Change Tax was deposited into the Conservation Fund until 2013 to protect farm and forest open spaces, as well as water and wildlife resources, Conservation Commissioner Mike Speltz argued the purpose of the tax is to balance development with the protection of open space.

“The fact is that most of our open spaces are available for development,” he said. “The Land Use Change Tax is the best way we have to balance development with Londonderry’s rural look and feel, its quality of life. It could be argued we already have sufficient protected open space. This begs the question, ‘how much is enough?’”

Pointing to the Town’s 2010 Open Space Plan, which addresses the question by analyzing the soils, waters, habitats, wildlife and accessibility of the Town’s remaining open spaces – the resources that provide the clean air, water, habitat and recreational opportunities the Town hopes to preserve, Speltz argued that while the Town has made tremendous progress, it has additional work to do to ensure some of the unprotected open space residents enjoy remains open space.

But Councilor Tom Freda, who sponsored Article 11, argued that a vast amount of the Town’s open space is underutilized, and the voters should have the opportunity to weigh in on whether or not additional properties are purchased with the Land Use Change Tax, particularly as the development of Woodmont Commons is expected to bring to the Town a $1 million windfall in fees.

“There’s nothing that would prevent the Conservation Commission from placing on the Warrant an article to purchase a certain piece of property,” he said, arguing it’s not appropriate to pour money into purchasing “lands that will continue to be underutilized.”

Conservation Commissioner Deb Lievens argued that a large portion of the Town’s open space is not utilized because its sole purpose is to keep the Town’s natural resources clean.

Additionally Lievens said the Town has been successful in preserving important pieces of land in town because the Commission had the funds available to make purchases quickly when an acquisition was time sensitive.

Budget Committee member James Hooley noted that if passed, the article would only capture about $500,000 of the windfall from Woodmont Commons.

The Town’s undesignated fund balance is just over $7 million, with about $2.5 million to be taken out with passage of the proposed FY17 Warrant, according to Finance Director Doug Smith.

Freda said, “$500,000 is a lot when the budget is tight.”

The Town will consider the entire FY17 Warrant as moved forward by the Council at the Town’s Deliberative Session on Feb. 6 at 9 a.m in the Londonderry High School cafeteria.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below and subscribe to our newsletter