March 9, 1999 was an historical date for Windham, as residents took part in the last Annual Meeting to be held in town. For longer than any resident can remember, this forum represented an opportunity for all to contribute to the manner in which their community was operated. Preceded by one or more public hearings, articles were placed on the warrant, and the Annual Meeting was held, generally commencing on Friday evening or, in recent years, Saturday morning in mid-March. Residents converged to discuss, amend, and ultimately vote on all articles presented on the warrant. Some discussions were heated, some humorous, and some incredibly lengthy, but in the end, all articles were voted upon. One of those articles voted on in 1999 resulted in the adoption of Senate Bill 2, or the Official Ballot Bill.
Briefly, Senate Bill 2 requires the following: a public hearing held by the Board of Selectmen to discuss budget and warrant articles (with the exception of zoning amendments) for placement on the preliminary Warrant; a deliberative session wherein residents are afforded the opportunity to discuss and amend those articles as presented on the warrant; and; the official ballot vote to be held on the second Tuesday in March at which eligible voters will either approve or disapprove the operating budget and warrant articles as written on the ballot.
So what, in a nutshell, does this mean for us in local government and the residents of our Town? It means an earlier budget season and, more importantly, active and diligent public participation in the deliberative session in order to assure a complete understanding and awareness of the forthcoming warrant articles, as the official ballot vote presents no opportunity for clarification.
Public Hearings: Prior to the Deliberative Session, a public hearing is held, allowing public input regarding the form and content of the final articles. Based on this hearing, the Board of Selectmen will vote to “Recommend” or “Not Recommend” each article on the Warrant. This hearing also includes discussion of items relative to budgetary and financial matters, as well as the bottom line budget for the ensuing year. Subsequent to this public hearing, a preliminary Budget and Warrant will be posted according to State statute and made available to residents in preparation for the Deliberative Session.
Deliberative Session: This session very closely resembles the familiar format of the New England Town Meeting, with one fundamental difference. Articles are discussed and amendments considered, however no official final action is taken at the time.
The Session will be presided over by the Town Moderator, who is charged with the obligation and responsibility of maintaining order at all times. The Deliberative Session, as was the case with Annual Town Meeting, adheres to the current “Robert’s Rules of Order.”
Each article will be addressed in the order set in the posted Warrant, unless the body votes to advance or postpone a specific article. Articles will be presented and moved by the Board of Selectmen, and may be explained by the sponsor or petitioner before discussion is opened to the floor.
Per “Robert’s Rules of Order”, a Point of Order may be put to the Moderator at any time during the session. This is not a motion, but rather a claim that the current discussion or speaker is out of order.
The Deliberative Session will not be adjourned until all required business has been transacted, however, it may be necessary to recess the proceedings for continuation. This is usually due to the lateness of the hour and/or the number of articles remaining for discussion.
As articles are discussed and accepted, the Town Moderator shall instruct the Town Clerk to place the article, as amended if applicable, onto the official ballot. Prior to the Official Ballot vote, a secondary Warrant and Budget will be posted and made available by the Town, reflecting those changes resulting from the Deliberative Session, and shall serve as the final warrant to be voted on.
Voters should be aware that Planning Board and zoning amendments do not fall under the auspices of the Board of Selectmen. These items are discussed at hearings held by the Planning Board themselves, and are placed on the warrant and ballot as determined by the members of the Planning Board.
The Deliberative Session, if possible, will be televised live on our local cable channel, WCTV-20, however in order to participate one must be present and be a registered voter in the Town. Non-voters and non-residents will most likely be allowed to remain in attendance, however they will be unable to address the body or cast a vote on any issue.
Official Ballot Vote: Held on the second Tuesday in March, the official ballot of the Town will encompass election of officers, proposed zoning amendments, and all approved warrant and budget articles for the Town. As indicated above, voters must be diligent regarding the public hearings and deliberative sessions for both Town and School, as election day affords no opportunity to question the meaning or results of adoption of any warrant article.
Due to the multitude of items the official ballot will contain, and because the School District has also adopted Senate Bill 2, voters must anticipate a potential wait at the polling place. Voters will be completing two ballots, encompassing many issues, and it is our sincere hope that the possibility of delays does not deter residents from taking part in the process.