Charter Change Could Put Bonds, Union Contracts Up for Vote

Many Derry residents came away from the recent tensions, culminating in a special election Oct. 13, with a renewed faith in democracy.

Town Councilor Mark Osborne came away with a vision.

Osborne was one of the Councilors who voted for tax cuts last May. While the community voted to restore the items cut, Osborne wonders if that isn’t a mandate for greater citizen involvement, at least on some issues.

Osborne brought out his ideas in the public comment portion of the Nov. 3 Council meeting and expanded on them in a phone interview.

“There was obviously a huge voter turnout for the special election,” Osborne said. More than 6,000 of Derry’s registered voters showed up to cast ballots.

Osborne continued, “It occurred to me that when we vote directly for local candidates, the turnout hasn’t been wonderful.”

Osborne’s take-away from the special election is, “What gets people motivated to vote are issues. Most people understand how a budget decision can affect what’s in their pocket.”

Osborne observed that there are a number of issues in which a direct resident vote could get people involved. “There are plenty of issues where we could motivate and influence people to have their say,” he said.

Osborne pinpointed two of these: bond issues and union contracts.

While the town isn’t currently bonding for any major projects, Osborne said that a bond, which involves committing to borrow a large amount of money, might draw out citizens interested in how the bond will affect their personal finances.

The other area, union contracts, would benefit from the transparency of a public vote, Osborne observed. Many residents don’t know what is in a union contract.

While many good people worked hard on the current charter, Osborne said, it would have to be revised to accommodate these ideas.

“We would be looking for opportunities to give voters as much say as possible,” he said.

Osborne is not advocating a return to traditional Town Meeting or adopting the Official Ballot Law (SB2) form of government. The town is simply too big, he said. But other large towns and even cities have provisions in their charters for residents to vote on big-ticket items, instead of leaving the responsibility with the Council.

Community votes would give a true picture of how the residents view the topic, according to Osborne. Instead of saying, “This Council hates unions” or “This Council is in the unions’ pocket,” a vote would take the pulse of the entire community.

“It would be a way we could ‘read’ the community,” Osborne said. “We’re either about democracy or we’re not.”

Other issues that would benefit from a direct vote would be educational ones. When Osborne lived in Plymouth, Mass., the city wanted to build a new high school, and though it is a city, it put the issue to a direct vote, he said.

No action by the Council was taken on his statements.

Osborne said the issue calls for “intelligent discussion and research,” and that it would not be on the next agenda.