Regardless of Side, Derry Voter Turnout is Pleasing

Thomas Cardon, chairman of the Derry Town Council, and longtime Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores don’t always see eye to eye. But as they stood outside the Gilbert H. Hood Middle School Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 13, they agreed on one thing: What’s done is done.

The budget cuts approved by a 4-3 majority of the Council May 19 divided a community, sent the town to court, and brought statewide media attention to the town. The issue was decided in the court-ordered special election last week, and Council members who supported the cuts, Councilors who opposed the cuts and community members agreed that enough is enough.

The special election was to consider eight “referendum petitions” and they were approved, in varying degrees, by 6,000 voters (see related stories page 1).

As he stood outside the school, Cardon said, “Tomorrow morning the budget is done. There will be no more petitions, no appeals. The town needs to move for ward, and we will live with what the voters say.”

Katsakiores, who was standing nearby, agreed.

Cardon, Mark Osborne, Al Dimmock and David Fischer voted in favor of the cuts, while Katsakiores, Joshua Bourdon and Richard Tripp opposed them.

Residents of the community objected to the cuts and drafted eight “referendum petitions” dealing with eight of the cuts. According to the town charter, a referendum petition with signatures from 20 percent of the registered voters in the last election must be acted upon by the Council and their votes reversed, or it will go to a special election.

In the July 28 special meeting the Council majority declined to reverse its vote or hold a special election. Residents Neil Wetherbee, Jenna Paradise and Brian Chirichiello took the town to Rockingham Superior Court, where Judge David Anderson handed down a decision that the special election must be held. The Council appealed the decision, but the Supreme Court upheld the lower court and the election was held Oct. 13.

On the afternoon of Election Day, cars lined up outside Hood as their drivers searched for a place to park. The line of would-be voters spilled out to the sidewalk, and the Supervisors of the Checklist had a waiting line of people who wanted to register.

As of Oct. 3, the Town had 20,505 registered voters.

On the sidewalk, people on both sides of the issue held signs to defend their positions. But the atmosphere was mostly genial, with residents chatting with people next to them, despite their view on the election.

Wetherbee, a former Town Councilor, held a sign in favor of the petitions and against the cuts. He said he had “a good feeling” about the vote from the people he’d talked to. “But you never know until the ballots are counted,” he added.

Skip Wedge, a Derry firefighter, said, “I’m here because I’m trying to get some reason back in the town. I want to bring back the fire station, bring back the laid-off firefighters and police officers.”

Wedge said the cuts have affected his day-to-day work as a firefighter. “Our response times have increased dramatically,” he said. Those responders who are first at the scene often don’t have the back-up to effectively fight the fire in a timely fashion, Wedge said.

“We need our full complement of firefighters back, especially when we’re dealing with a structure fire,” he said.

Though many children accompanied their parents to the polls, the youngest people holding signs were Karlie Toronto, 9, and her brother Michael, 11. They were in favor of the petitions, with Karlie saying, “I’m here because of the cuts to safety, to fire and police. If people need help, we need more people out here instead of less.”

Michael said he was concerned about the use of mutual aid. “I want to have as many people of our own town at an emergency before we call in other towns,” he said.

But other residents stood outside in favor of the cuts. Hal and Marian Schnitzlein spoke in favor of tax relief in several public meetings last year. “I know there are a lot more voters out there who agree with the cuts,” Marian Schnitzlein said. “People do want to get their taxes lowered. This is an historic vote.”

Even with all petitions passing, residents will still see a tax cut.

But whatever the outcome, Schnitzlein, who has attended almost all Town Council meetings for two years, said she was pleased with the civic involvement. “It’s a win-win to have all these people out here,” she said, gesturing to the crowd.

Resident Maureen Rose also held a sign supporting the cuts. People, especially seniors, are desperate for tax relief, Rose said.

“There are elderly people who have nice homes that they’ve taken care of, they’ve brought up their families, and now they have no kids in school. And they can’t keep up with their taxes.

“Nobody,” Rose said, “loves the police and fire more than I do. But you’ve got to pay your bills.”

Cardon said it was going well from his perspective. “We have had a lot of people stop and talk to us,” he said. “They thank us for what we’re doing, they thank us for standing up for them.”

He said he didn’t want to predict the outcome, and noted that with eight petitions, it would not necessarily be “all or nothing.” But in the end, it was.

School Board members Michelle McKinnon and Brenda Willis stood together, holding signs against the cuts and in favor of the petitions. McKinnon said she didn’t have any particular cut that concerned her more than others. “They are all equally alarming,” she said. But if she had to choose, it would be the closing of the Hampstead Road Fire Station, because she lives in that part of town.

Resident Tina Guilford said she was holding a sign in favor of the petitions as a “concerned Derry resident.” Guilford said she wanted to see the services restored, noting that in her opinion, the Council “went at it with a hatchet. They should have had department heads come in and review their needs, and then go at it with a scalpel.”

Guilford was especially concerned about the cuts to safety services, noting, “When I dial 9-1-1, I want them there.” She also didn’t like the cuts to Public Works, noting, “They had a hard time keeping up last year, and this winter is supposed to be worse.”

But Guilford was pleased with the turnout, and as she watched more of her fellow residents get in line, she said, “I wish this happened at all town elections.”

“If they’d only show up like this for the regular town elections, that would be great,” Town Moderator Margaret Ives agreed from her station inside the school.

Town Clerk Denise Neale said 3,800 people had voted by 5 p.m.

There were lines 10 deep as the ballot clerks checked people in, and lines four to six people deep at the Supervisors of the Checklist as they registered voters. New residents Rick and Suzette Moody said they took advantage of the election to register.

“We are interested in seeing the police and fire remain intact,” Rick Moody said. Though they are new to town, they’ve been following the issues “a little,” he said.

Suzette Moody, a nurse, said, “The closing of a fire station means two fewer EMS (Emergency Medical Services) trucks are available. In order for people in crisis to receive the attention they deserve, we need to fully staff the EMS, fire, police and Public Works.”

Back outside, Cardon reiterated that the Council will live with the people’s choice and remarked on the good turnout. “But it’s too bad we have to go through something like this to get it,” he mused.

Wetherbee and Cardon found something they could agree on, with Wetherbee noting, “The best part of this is the voter turnout.”

Osborne agreed with them both. “I’m very excited about the turnout,” he said.

And Osborne said that the election result would define the town. “Both sides have argued that they represent what the people of Derry want,” he said. “I hope this is a definitive, decisive election. It will show whether we’re pro-taxpayer or pro-tax, and send a message that will be heard by all.”