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Heat Turning Up On Home Rule Debate

BY Tom Fahey
by Tom Fahey on 10/19/00.

CONCORD -- The volume picked up yesterday in the argument over the "home rule " amendment voters face Nov. 7.

The measure would give towns and cities the power to make decisions that the state Constitution or state laws do not discuss.

Home rule backers say the amendment, which needs to pass by a two-thirds vote, will allow towns to handle local issues locally, without the need to file legislation and wait for state lawmakers to act. In cities, a city council would have to vote a measure into effect. In towns, action would require approval of town voters at a regular or special town meeting.

Opponents say the amendment will "turn New Hampshire government upside down," by creating a network of mini-legislatures and an extra level of government.

The New Hampshire Municipal Association, which leads the fight for the amendment, gathered local leaders together yesterday to urge passage of the amendment.

"The essence of home rule is local control," said Douglas Elliot, city manager of Somersworth and co-chair of the NHMA's effort to pass the amendment.

"This will, in fact, allow local government to be more responsive to the needs of its citizens."

The Business and Industry Association, meanwhile, released a list of 18 organizations that oppose the amendment. They include the state Professional Firefighters Association, the High Tech Council and groups representing grocery stores, ski areas, restaurants, hotels, hunters, timberland owners and others.

BIA President John Crosier said, "What 'home rule' really means is 'more rules' -- more government in New Hampshire."

The BIA quoted Charles Neibling, policy director for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, as saying, "The resources we work with, forests, water, air and wildlife, to not recognize town boundaries. This amendment could have negative unintended consequences on long-term conservation. "

Manchester Mayor Robert Baines said a simple matter like allowing citizens to pay tax, water and other municipal bills by credit card or debit card had to go through the process of being made legal under state law.

"Why not take the burden off the state Legislature and let them focus on issues important to the state as a whole, like school funding?" he asked.

Elliot said that when Somersworth wanted to institute a user fee for trash removal, it need state approval. Noise ordinances are another area where the state becomes involved, he said.

NHMA spokesperson Maura Carroll said the group will spend about $ 30,000 by election day on printed materials, lawn signs and buttons, along with brochures that explain the amendment.

Citizens for a Sound Economy, an advocacy group in Concord, criticized the NHMA for raising money for its campaign by asking towns for donations.

"In the current times of our financial challenges, I do not think that the donation of public money to a political campaign is the proper use of the taxpayers' money," said Richard Killion, director of the group.

He provided the media with a list of $ 7,400 in municipal contributions, which range from $ 50 out of Easton to $ 2,400 from the city of Keene.

BIA spokesman Brett St. Clair said his group will probably reach the $ 500 spending level that requires a report to the Secretary of State's Office.