Judging by current events taking place in Seabrook and Dover, it appears it is once again time for New Hampshire legislators and voters to consider an amendment to the state constitution establishing home rule.
Home rule means New Hampshire’s cities and towns could assume all functions not previously allocated to the state. Currently, local voters only have authority granted them by the Legislature.
In the case of the current Seabrook charter controversy, being a home-rule state would mean the voters of this town could develop a charter that gives them the authority to recall elected officials without state approval. In Dover, it would clarify the city manager’s claims that the charter precludes allowing public access to salary information of municipal employees.
Over the past 30 years, there have been three attempts to amend the New Hampshire Constitution to make home rule the law of the land. All three have passed the Legislature, but failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote at the polls.
The last attempt was in 2000. The N.H. Municipal Association was the impetus for the amendment, but the powerful N.H. Business and Industry Association, the New Hampshire Citizens for a Sound Economy advocacy group and the N.H. Farm Bureau opposed the measure.
The opposition defeated the amendment using a combination of tactics, some appropriate and some not.
For example, opponents pointed out that giving cities and towns the ability to develop their own regulations could result in contradictory environmental rules being enacted in adjacent communities. The BIA expressed concerns that companies operating in multiple communities could have problems meeting environmental standards that varied between those towns.
The NHCSE voiced concerns that allowing communities home rule would establish another level of government and further complicate people’s lives.
However, all the opponents also contended taxpayers were being asked to pay the cost of advocating for the amendment, and that was not the whole truth. What the Municipal Association had asked its member communities to do was send 10 cents per resident to the association to pay for the advocacy effort. The donations were completely voluntary and town officials could choose not to contribute.
One of the other claims opponents made was that instituting home rule would generate expensive lawsuits for the communities as they attempted to defend their individual ordinances. However, as we have seen in Seabrook and, perhaps, are about to see in Dover, not having home rule can also be a source of costly litigation when voters feel they have the right to do something and those it is being done to take umbrage.
Certainly, there are risks involved in establishing New Hampshire as a home-rule state, something Maine did 14 years ago, but the benefits of locals being able to determine their own destinies – at least in areas where the state has not yet taken the issue over – far outweigh the negatives.
Perhaps one of the questions voters should begin to ask would-be state legislators this election season – aside from how they intend to solve the education funding, Medicaid reform and inadequate revenues problems – is whether they would support a home-rule amendment. Recent events on the Seacoast show it is time to once again take a hard look at this issue.