Making the Most Out of Town Meeting for Conservation Issues
Town meeting or a city council meeting (legislative body) is an important local step for many conservation commissions to gain approval for a specific project or to pass a warrant article, and is an opportunity to provide town residents with a better understanding of the purpose and goals of the commission. Conservation commissions should always strive to be a respected voice at town/council meetings. Commissioners should be informed and knowledgeable in commission activities including knowledge of the RSA relating to a conservation commission’s functions, and current projects and plans. By presenting professionally and being well informed when in the public arena, your commission can establish itself as a trusted, knowledgeable and experienced part of town government that both policy makers and the public will look to for input on conservation matters.
Collaboration Is Important
In NH, according to RSA 39:2 and 39:5, the select board or governing body of your town is responsible for preparing the warrant articles. As a commissioner it is important to work with the select board and/or other town governmental bodies when preparing for town meeting. Consider that official boards have processes that they must follow according to the law.
Warrant article language is guided by state statute and common law. Make sure you present your article to the governing body allowing for enough time to answer questions and make changes to your article. Working with other boards in your town can take time, but it allows you to understand where there are opportunities to collaborate and find common ground. Your commission can draft the article and review the wording with the town attorney to ensure it is correct before the warrant is posted. When the wording is final, warrant articles go to the municipal clerk who prepares the questions for the official ballot with a description, which town board or commission submitted the article, and the level of commission support for the warrant article. It is important to know if your town is an SB-2 town. Under SB-2 there may be a deliberative session that can make amendments to the articles, including yours. Some of these amendments might be hostile to your warrant and which might effectively kill the article. An article’s content cannot be amended but the dollar amount for appropriation to implement the article can be amended. Therefore, commissioners should be in attendance at these sessions, and should be prepared to argue against such amendments to protect the article.
Public Awareness and Education Activities
Getting support for your projects starts long before town meetings. Review your proposals with the select board and other town decision-makers so that no one is surprised by new a warrant article. Making the voters aware of the article and educating them about the benefits of the commission’s proposal prior to town meetings will give citizens a chance to learn, ask questions and help you garner their support. Public awareness can also assist greatly in fostering and developing credibility, which is so important to commission’s effectiveness, especially for support for warrant articles. As residents learn more about their town’s water resources, biodiversity, wildlife, protected lands they will understand the importance of protecting natural areas for fresh air, clean water, wildlife and/or recreation. The more voters who support your work and attend town meeting, the better the commission’s chances are of getting a warrant passed. There are always some undecided voters that can be swayed during the meeting, so be prepared to answer questions and make your case during the meeting. Your commission may consider the following activities prior to town meeting or city council voting:
- Hosting a public education presentation before the town meeting to explain what you are doing and how it will benefit the town. Along with emphasizing the environmental benefits of your proposal it may also be necessary to emphasize the value of the proposal from an economic viewpoint and how it fits with the town’s surveys, master plan, or regional plans. Whenever possible, outline the tax implications and how the money will be spent. Keep the presentation simple and easy to understand with clear charts and graphs. If you are using slides, limit the amount of text and use bullet points when possible. Select a member to present the program or proposed warrant article. This presenter must know the proposal, the potential resistance and issues that might arise and be comfortable as a public speaker. Other commissioners should be at the presentation to provide support and to answer questions which might arise.
- Using social media, to generate interest, present factual information as well as an understanding of the work of the commission, and why it is proposing a warrant article can be an excellent vehicle for educating the community. If the commission has a website, this might be a useful place to point the public for more detail about the warrant article and the work of the commission.
- As well as social media, writing an article for the local newspaper highlighting the specific proposal or the conservation commission's goals and projects for the year makes for an informed community, which might help gain support.
- In preparation for the town meeting, questions should be anticipated and answers prepared in advance. Sometimes a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) sheet is prepared which can address the anticipated questions. Someone is likely to question the tax consequences of a proposal. Generally, the commission should be prepared to explain the economic, tax, and ecosystem benefits of land protection, the reduction of property loss with proper flood control, and the health benefits of fresh air and clean drinking water. If possible, getting a respected ally from the community who supports your warrant and can speak to it benefits, can be a valuable asset for the cause.
- If you are planning to produce educational materials to support your position at the town meeting, such as a FAQ sheet, it’s best to collect private donations to cover the cost of printing and distribution. Having a brief handout available to voters can be a good way to make the case to support your warrant article. Keep it simple, no jargon, easy to read and with bullet points that can outline the benefits to the community of your project or warrant article.
- NH law allows town officials to prepare and distribute a voter guide to provide additional information about each warrant article. If possible, work with your town officials who are preparing the voter guide and make sure your warrant article has the information you think will help voters support you work. According to the NH Municipal Association, a variety of state and federal courts have held that government officials may not spend public funds advocating or opposing a ballot measure unless they offer an opportunity for opposing views to be heard. Providing purely factual information, however, not specifically designed to persuade a voter to vote in a particular way, but to educate the voters generally, would not be considered electioneering and is allowed.
- Your commission may publish a map of local natural resources (NRI) to display at town meeting. This map should highlight your project and any supporting resources. Consider engaging the public with maps and ask the public to list wildlife observations or favorite natural areas. Providing visual information to voters can be the best way to educate the public at town meeting.
Town Meeting Follow up
If the conservation commission proposal is approved, the commission should make it a priority to thank local boards, key supporters, and the public. Your commission may send thank you notes from the chair, in press releases, or letters to the editor of the local paper to express appreciation for their support. It is also helpful to reach out to those who opposed your project and ask about their concerns to see if you can find common ground to encourage them to become allies in the future.
If the warrant article failed to pass, it is important for your commission to review the process and analyze what went right and wrong. Listen to the arguments raised in opposition, and which boards, groups, or individuals raised them. Discuss your options and consider how to revise your strategy, make changes and find ways to work with the opposition. Sometimes the community is just not ready and the failed process can serve as an educational tool both for the commission and for the community, which can be built upon for a future campaign.
Don’t give up on your first try, many towns have success in subsequent years in bringing back a modified warrant article. Making community change for the benefit of the health and vitality of our environment is a critical value to hold onto.