Can the Deliberative Session of Town Meeting in a Senate Bill 2 Town Change the Intent or Purpose of a Petitioned Warrant Article?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Cady v. Town of Deerfield

In Cady v. Town of Deerfield, decided January 18, 2017, the New Hampshire Supreme Court dealt with the question of the extent to which the deliberative session of the Town Meeting in a Senate Bill 2 municipality may amend a warrant article.  A Senate Bill 2 town is one which has adopted the provisions of RSA 40:13 and which accordingly conducts its town meetings in two sessions:  the first session is deliberative in nature and consists of “explanation, discussion, and debate” on each proposed warrant article; and the second session involves voting by official ballot on each of the warrant articles, as amended at the first session.

In Cady, the Town of Deerfield’s deliberative session considered two petitioned warrant articles, the first of which was to make the Welfare Director an elected position at a salary no greater than $5,000 per year; and the second of which was to make the Police Chief an elected position to be paid $65,000 per year, subject to cost of living increases.  The deliberative session of the Town Meeting changed the petitioned warrant articles to “express an advisory view that the position of Welfare Director [Police Chief] be an appointed position as it is at the present time.”

RSA 40:13, IV(c) provides that warrant articles may be amended at the deliberative session, provided that “no warrant article shall be amended to eliminate the subject matter of the article.”  Cady argued that changing the petitioned articles, from making the Welfare Director and the Police Chief elected positions to having them remain as appointed positions, improperly changed or eliminated the intent or subject matter of the petitioned articles.  The Court rejected this argument, finding that the plain meaning of RSA 40:13, IV(c) prohibited only amendments that “eliminate” the subject matter of a warrant article, not amendments that change the “intent”  of a warrant article.  In addition to the plain meaning of the statute, the Court was also persuaded by a 2016 bill that was rejected by the Legislature.  That bill would have modified the language of RSA 40:13, IV(c) to provide that: “No petitioned warrant article shall be amended to [eliminate] change the subject matter or the intent of the article.”  (Words that were proposed to be added to RSA 40:13, IV(c) are in bold and words to be removed appear in brackets and are struck through.)

Thus, unless and until the Legislature amends RSA 40:13, IV(c), the deliberative session of a Senate Bill 2 “or official ballot” municipality may change warrant articles so long as the basic subject matter is not eliminated, even if the intent or purpose of the article is changed. This applies both to the deliberative session of a Senate Bill 2 town and to the traditional town meeting in a municipality that has not adopted the “official ballot” form of town meeting.