The New Hampshire Supreme Court sided with the hundreds of Derry petitioners who took the Town to court after the Town Council majority refused to honor referendum petitions to restore substantial budget cuts.
In issuing their unanimous, Oct. 5 decision, the court concluded a formal written opinion was unnecessary.
“We’re very happy that everything broke our way, both Superior Court and Supreme Court. And it’s important that the people do have their say. They worked very hard, the people of our town. And finally their voices will be heard,” said petitioner Brian Chirichiello, who previously served as a town councilor.
“We’re absolutely ecstatic that it was a unanimous decision. We never had any doubt about this. We never had any doubt of the people of Derry being behind this. This has never been about me, Brian and Jenna. The outrage really came from every corner of the community. And to be vindicated with this decision really feels good at this point,” said Neil Wetherbee, also a petitioner in the suit filed against the Town on Aug. 14 and a former town councilor.
Derry resident Jenna Paradise filed with Wetherbee and Chirichiello the petition for declaratory and injunctive relief after the Council reduced the Town’s proposed budget by about $1.5 million – eliminating several full-time positions in the fire, police, executive and public works departments; reducing overtime for several departments and closing a fire station.
The Council adopted the amended budget at its May 19 meeting, despite overwhelming opposition to the cuts.
“I think it’s really important to see where your money’s going, how it’s getting there and who is speaking for you,” Paradise said. “The councilors that were up there weren’t listening to the people they were supposed to be representing.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’ve seen where there has been a lot of divisiveness, but that’s where it stopped,” Chirichiello said. “This was not that. This was ‘we don’t care what you have to say, we’re going to do what we want to do.’ And the people said no, that’s not going to happen.”
On June 11, residents submitted to the Town Clerk eight referendum petitions, each related to restoring funding for a specific item the Council had eliminated from the budget.
“We’ve been under a tax cap since 1993, which allows you to grow by a certain amount. Never in the time I was a councilor did we ever go up to that tax cap, and a couple times we zeroed it. So, there’s no runaway spending on the town side. There is none,” Chirichiello said.
Despite collecting signatures from 20 percent of the Town’s registered voters, as required of a referendum petition, the Council at its July 28 meeting voted 4-3 to maintain the challenged budget items and to refrain from scheduling a special election to vote on the petitions. Voting in favor of the budget cuts were Thomas Cardon, Mark Osborne, David Fischer and Al Dimmock.
“There’s a reason this referendum petition process has never been used in the 30 odd years of the charter being in existence. And it’s really because we’ve never had a council that has been this tone deaf to its citizens,” Wetherbee said. “And that’s what really invoked this process; if you don’t listen to the people, our Charter has a system of checks and balances.”
Chirichiello, Wetherbee and Paradise took the Town to Superior Court, where Judge David Anderson ruled on Sept. 14 in favor of the petitioners.
After appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, the Council voted in a special meeting on Sept. 23 to set Oct. 13 as a date for a special election, contingent on the Supreme Court ruling.
The petitioners raised from members of the community a total of $15,000 to pay their attorney, Jon Meyer of Backus, Meyer and Branch.
Additionally, the Town spent somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000 in legal fees to defend their position and appeal the lower court’s decision to the Supreme Court.
“We had residents bringing checks in four figures. We don’t see them at the Council meetings, but something got them so upset they came and donated that much money,” Wetherbee said. “This came from every corner of our community – business people, elderly folks who want to see their taxes go down too, but they don’t want to lose their services. They want to know that when they call an ambulance, an ambulance will get there.”
In regard to concerns from Council Chairman Cardon that the referendum petition would set a bad precedent, with the potential for the process to be abused in the future, Wetherbee pointed to the challenges he and fellow petitioners overcame to see their suit through to the Supreme Court.
“This has not been an easy process, not an easy process to go out and get 800 signatures. It’s not an easy process to raise $15,000 in legal fees. It’s a very, very difficult process. You really have to tick people off in order to make that happen,” Wetherbee said. “It’s not something that’s going to happen every day. It’s not something that’s going to happen every budget season.”
Wetherbee added that voter apathy in Derry is a significant challenge he hopes to see the Town overcome, with between 3,000 and 4,000 people voting in the Oct. 13 special election.
“I just think this is about giving a voice to the people. Let the people decide this issue. That’s all we’ve ever asked for,” Wetherbee said. “And why it has been such a problem to get here and cost the taxpayer so much money to get here, I really don’t know, but that’s what it’s taken and hopefully the outcome will be in our favor.”
And if the voters, three-fourths of whom signed the referendum petitions to restore the proposed budget, don’t vote in favor of the petitions in the special election?
“The will of the people is never wrong,” Wetherbee said.
When asked what action they hope to see taken to address the actions of Council members they think were intended to stifle the will of the citizens of Derry, the petitioners called on residents to “remember in March.”
“I definitely think in the March election you’ll see more people get involved,” Wetherbee said.
See related stories pages 1, 8.