A torn ballot, a close vote in Goffstown
By GREG KWASNIK
Union Leader Correspondent
A dispute over a secret ballot at Wednesday's town deliberative session failed to alter a 87-86 vote that increased the town's proposed budget by more than $486,000.
The dispute occurred during a vote on a warrant article amendment proposed by Selectmen Chairman Scott Gross. The amendment, which Gross said was required to keep up with the town's road maintenance needs, revised the budget upward to $21.15 million. The increase would raise the town tax rate by 33 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.
The vote first came into question because of its slim margin of approval. A recount was requested, which produced the same 87-86 result.
Budget Committee Chairman Dan Cloutier then pointed to a torn ballot discounted by moderator Ronald Stark. Cloutier asked Stark to redo the secret ballot vote, arguing that the torn ballot had the "no" box checked off.
Cloutier then named the voter -- Timothy Redmond, chairman of the Capital Improvements Plan Committee and a planning board member -- claiming that Redmond was willing to voice his vote in the negative.
After deliberating, Stark ruled not to allow the torn ballot on the grounds that the voter's intent was unclear, and that the voter could not be identified during a secret ballot.
"Nobody knows whose ballot is whose. Now we have an opportunity to identify a certain individual and what his vote was, or what he claims his vote was," Stark said. "That is, in my opinion, contrary to the whole idea of a secret ballot."
Redmond said he is not opposed to the ruling, and respects the democratic process.
"I support the moderator's decision, and that's all I really want to say about it," Redmond said.
The close vote over the budget reflects ongoing differences between the board of selectmen and the budget committee. In the months leading up to Wednesday's deliberative session, the budget committee had reduced the board of selectmen's original operating budget, proposed in November, by more than $973,000.
Gross said the budget committee had taken too much out of the town's budget, jeopardizing services such as road maintenance, trash collection, plowing, and police and fire protection.
"There's a lot of services that you expect every day," Gross said at the deliberative session. "So there's a consequence when we talk about these numbers."
Several members of the budget committee countered by arguing that their budget was the result of countless hours of careful study and deliberation. The committee's $21.05 million proposed budget would have increased the tax rate by 26 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
"There were no wild people in there grabbing chunks of money and throwing it aside," said Bill Gordon, a budget committee member. "With the tax rate going up and up and up continually, less and less people will buy into this town regardless of what the services are."
As of yesterday afternoon, the moderator's ruling on the secret ballot had not been challenged, according to Town Clerk Cathy Ball. If someone were to challenge the ruling, the likely recourse would be in the courts, according to Dave Scanlon, deputy secretary of state.
"I think if the recount has been done and there's a single ballot in dispute that could have affected the vote, the next step is to ask a court to make an interpretation," Scanlon said.
Goffstown residents are scheduled to vote on the town budget and all other warrant articles March 9.