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Bedford councilor pushing for voting districts

BY SCOTT DOLAN
08/15/2004
by SCOTT DOLAN on 8/15/04.

BEDFORD — Town Councilor David Danielson expects he will lose his seat in the next election if Bedford decides to elect five of its seven councilors by district rather than at large, but he told a breakfast crowd yesterday he supports the change anyway.

Danielson was one of two scheduled guest speakers at a breakfast put on by the Bedford chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy (B-CSE) at the old town hall.

The political group had two points to make at the breakfast: to commend volunteers who recently helped restore the dilapidated Marconi Museum in the town’s center and to discuss two B-CSE-petitioned ballot articles for the Aug. 31 special election.

The keynote speaker, Gov. Craig Benson, canceled before the breakfast, citing a scheduling conflict, and instead sent a letter thanking the volunteers for their efforts along with signed certificates of commendation for each volunteer.

B-CSE collected 3,500 signatures for each of its petitions, asking for a special election for voters to decide whether to elect five of its seven town councilors by districts and whether to form a charter committee to look into abandoning the traditional town meeting form of government in favor of the Official Ballot voting form.

The group invited Danielson to speak as the longest-serving member of the council and the only member of the board who supports dividing the town into five neighborhood districts.

Danielson said he began considering the idea of districting about seven years ago, when school board member Paul Brock was campaigning to create neighborhood elementary schools in town.

Danielson said he had noticed since moving to Bedford in 1971 that the community had drifted away from being a small town where people knew each other toward becoming a commuter town.

“What I had noticed over time is the town is not as cohesive as it had been,” he said. “The socializing within our town, just in our homes, has diminished.”

Danielson also observed that three of the seven councilors, and until recently four of the seven, lived within 300 yards of each other in the Joppa Hill area.

“Some night, the two ideas collided: I think it might be a good idea to districtize the town. I didn’t want to say ‘ward’ (as cities do), so I said ‘district,’ ” he said.

Danielson said he hoped that having five districts dividing the town of about 19,000 residents into separate neighborhoods would re-engage people to run their town.

“The idea is smaller political entities force people to talk to each other,” he said.

“People in the United States had begun to disengage themselves from the political process,” Danielson said. Fewer young people join the Rotary and similar clubs, and fewer belong to churches and synagogues than in the past, he said.

Danielson said a frequently asked question is, “What happens if no one runs?”

“Have there been instances where people don’t run? Yeah, but it’s really rare,” he said. “I don’t think that’s truly a big concern. We’re a large town. We’re larger than most cities in New Hampshire.”

The council last month voted to oppose the districting question on the ballot, with Danielson the only supporter. Council Chairman Michael Scanlon, Vice Chairman Kevin Keyes and Town Manager Keith Hickey recently went on Bedford’s local access cable station to argue against both B-CSE ballot questions.

“I wish the council had taken the initiative to do this. I think one of the council’s roles is to look at ideas of where the town is going,” Danielson said.

B-CSE member John Heneage spoke about the second ballot question in favor of Official Ballot voting, or Senate Bill 2, as it is often referred.

“The town meeting format is a great New England tradition that works well in a small town,” Heneage said. “As a town gets larger, it doesn’t work so well. Last year, we had one percent of voters attend the town meeting.”

He argued more people would attend if residents could go to voting booths at their leisure on an election day rather than sit through hours of debate at town meeting

“The problem with that mechanism is it excludes too many people,” Heneage said. “Those types of elections are too easily manipulated by whoever shows up on a cold March night.”

Heneage said there are pros and cons to Official Ballot voting, but the pros outweigh the cons.

“Town meeting can be intimidating and confusing,” Heneage said. “Sometimes amendments can make it difficult to know what one is voting on.”

On the pros side, the required deliberative session leading up to an Official Ballot election allows the issues to be aired weeks in advance, he said.

On the cons side, residents can amend ballot articles at the deliberative session before the entire body of voters gets to weigh in on it on election day.

In the governor’s letter, he thanked the volunteers for their effort:

“The hard work and dedication each of you put into this product has greatly benefited the community of Bedford and the State of New Hampshire,” Benson wrote. “Through restoring the museum, you have brought an important piece of history, culture and innovation to the forefront of the public eye.”

The volunteers were Tom Browne, Moe Villeneuve, Kevin Shaughnessy, Arnold Waldner, John Heneage, Joe Dubisz, Ronald Fortier, Dennis Markell, Ralph Dieter, Tom Perkins, John Grubmuller, Don Torbich, Dick Stonner, Stu Harnden, John Diefenbach, Mark Skersey, Tom Carder and Billy Sullivan.