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Call to order: This NH town manager created a practical guide to Town Meeting

Dalton had a spirited discussion about the proposed abolition of the town's conservation commission at annual Town Meeting March 14, 2023. Zoey Knox photo / NHPR
Zoey Knox
Dalton residents had a spirited discussion about the proposed abolition of the town's conservation commission at their annual Town Meeting, March 14, 2023.

New Hampshire Town Meeting Day is coming up on Tuesday. It’s a time for voters to weigh in on local issues.

Hanover’s Town Manager, Alex Torpey, has created a new guide for towns and voters. He joined NHPR’s Rick Ganley on Morning Edition to talk about the process and efforts towns are making to get more residents involved.


Tell me more about this handbook. Why did you decide to make it?

I just moved up to New Hampshire a little less than two years ago. And I've been working in municipal government for probably 15 years in an elected capacity, in an appointed capacity, as a volunteer, kind of all across the board. And coming up here to New Hampshire, one of the reasons why I came here and came to Hanover was this sort of deep commitment to local civic engagement and that communities come together and make collaborative decisions about their futures. And it was just very compelling. It's such a unique way to govern, and it's such an important part of the state's history. But there's also a lot of questions out there about how to do this. And some of those questions I'm asking coming up here, asking my colleague town managers in other towns what's worked, what hasn't worked. And there are some outstanding questions, a lot of which center around how do we get people to proactively want to engage in some of these issues so that it doesn't take something going wrong to get people really engaged and paying attention?

What are some ways that towns can get people more engaged in the [Town] Meeting Day process on a regular basis?

It's a great question, because there are some really good best practices that came out from surveying town managers, town clerks in New Hampshire and Vermont. So an easy one, for example, a lot of towns put together an annual town report that includes the town warrant. But often those documents are pretty long. Ours and Hanover is a couple hundred pages. It's a lot to ask someone to read cover to cover. So even just sending a postcard to every house with some of the highlights of what's being discussed, maybe what the important themes are at that year's town meeting, and then giving people the opportunity to go get more information.

Alex Torpey is the town manager in Hanover, NH.
courtesy of Alex Torpey
Alex Torpey is the town manager in Hanover, NH.

A lack of child care services, that's a big issue in New Hampshire generally, but there are a lot of folks who can't come to Town Meeting. If you're a single parent and you have a kid at home, what's your choice? You either get to participate in democracy or take care of your kid, and that's not a fair choice to put someone in. So a lot of towns we talked about -- and we may try this in Hanover -- [are] providing child care services or helping connect people to those resources. There were a few more ideas that we identified about explaining warrant article issues and using good language to get people interested, but also making sure that you're being fair in how you're presenting the issue to people so they can come to their own decision.

Alex, say someone has never been to a Town Meeting Day, but are just now deciding to get involved. What can they expect to happen once they get to the meeting? What should they know about the process?

Well, that's a really great question, and there's going to be a lot of variation depending on what community you're in. And so I think probably the best advice that I could give people is reaching out to people that are active in your community already. And so you've got a bunch of different local elected officials -- your town clerk, your supervisors, your moderator. Oftentimes in most towns in New Hampshire, all those folks are pretty accessible. So if someone's interested, you might just shoot an email, or stop by town hall or call and say, "Hey, how can I learn more?" A lot of times, towns do have information on their website about how you can get engaged. And then the New Hampshire Municipal Association (NHMA) also has some really good resources that we link to at the end of our handbook that are free, nonpartisan resources that NHMA provides. And some of those are things like what rights you have as a citizen. So if you go to Town Meeting, you know what you're allowed to make a motion on, and what you can do and not do. And so looking at some of those resources ahead of time, and maybe trying to find a community group that you can plug into to engage with before you actually go, so you feel a little more comfortable on Town Meeting Day.

A little bit of preparation.

Yeah, a little bit, yeah.

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Jackie Harris is the Morning Edition Producer at NHPR. She first joined NHPR in 2021 as the Morning Edition Fellow.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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