Residents Work To Close Town Meeting "Information Gap" With Web Tools

Mar 2, 2015

Carolyn Fetter writes the blog InTheKnowHampton.org
Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR

To function, town governments in New Hampshire rely on an informed citizenry. But getting informed can be overwhelming. Deliberative sessions take all day, warrant articles can be technical and hard to understand, and candidates can be numerous.

Now, civic-minded residents are finding ways to help.

Carolyn Fetter attends Hampton’s deliberative session, and keeps up with the local newspaper. Still, she says, she struggles to understand what is being asked of her at the ballot box – especially with Hampton’s numerous zoning articles.  She talked to her friends: they told her when they don’t understand a warrant article, they leave it blank, or “just vote no.” Fetter was frustrated. “That's not a way to run a government,” she says. “I just felt somebody needed to fill that void.”

While camped out at home during one of this winter’s many snow storms, Fetter got to work on a blog she called InTheKnowHampton.org.

The website breaks down each of Hampton’s warrant articles, describes them in lay terms, and briefly lays out the arguments for and against. Voters can then print a two-page guide on which they circle their own preferences.

It took tens of hours. Hampton has 49 warrant articles and 18 candidates this year.

Recent attendees at the Rye Civic League meeting included Sam Winebaum, Peter White, Ray Jarvis, Dominique Winebaum, May Bradshaw, Burt Dibble, Peter Crawford, Cecilia Azzi, Victor Azzi and Steven Borne
Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR

  Fetter read documents. She re-listened to deliberative session tapes. She emailed back and forth with Hampton’s Finance Director and Town Planner. Next year, she says, she hopes others will chip in.  “This isn’t mine,” she says.

In 2012, the NH Municipal Association estimated that fewer than 2.5 percent of residents attend deliberative sessions. A quarter of the population votes in SB2 towns like Hampton.

Municipal Association Director Judy Silva says she sees more and more towns making information available online.  “The tools are available,” she says.

But go two towns North of Hampton to Rye, and Steven Borne says his town documents aren’t cutting it. “The town just gives you a spreadsheet. There is no analysis. What does it all mean?” He asks.   

Borne is at the helm of a longstanding group in Rye called the Rye Civic League.   Like IntheKnowHampton, League members see themselves filling a void left by incomplete meeting-minutes, shrinking newspapers, and an ever-busier electorate.

It’s the kind of collaborative effort Carolyn Fetter hopes her blog may someday become.

On a recent Tuesday night, 10 volunteers crowded around a table in the basement of the Rye Public Library.  Every month, members of this non-profit divvy up planning board, school board, and zoning board meetings.  They attend, take notes, then summarize theon their website and monthly newsletter.

For town meeting day, the League will host a candidates’ forum. They’ve broken down warrant articles, and published a 37-slide budget analysis complete with bar graphs, pie charts, even flow charts. 

Borne says the Rye Civic League is having some success. In a town of 5,000 residents, 1,000 subscribe to the newsletter, 500 open it, and 250 click on the newsletter’s links. “If you did some homework around email marketing,” Borne says, “we’re crushing it.”

Which, Borne says, just goes to show that when it comes to local government, especially this time of year, people want more information.