By Ray Carbone
SUNAPEE – A court hearing scheduled for Thursday could have a significantly impact the ballot that town voters see at the polls next Tuesday, March 13.
A Sullivan County Superior Court judge is set to listen to a request from John Augustine, a selectman, and other residents, identified as “Concerned Citizens of Sunapee,” to reverse a change in the language of a petitioned warrant article that was approved last month at the town’s annual deliberative town meeting on Feb. 16. Augustine claims that the article, which he initiated, was altered in a way that muddied its original intent.
John Augustine decided to initiated the petition warrant article that would let town voters consider the question when they go to polls on election day.
\The town of Sunapee “acted unlawfully in disregarding (the petition’s) language,” according to the court action, because state law requires that “no warrant article shall be amended to eliminate the subject matter of the article.”
The issue is related to a decision made by the Board of Selectmen to change the insurance system that the town uses for its employees. According to Donna Nashawaty, the town manager who proposed the new plan, the idea was to terminate a so-called “Cadillac” plan to a high-deductible “site-of-service” plan. Nashawaty said the change could save the town $70,000 this year but, as a way to smooth the transition for its employees, the selectmen agreed to pay 100-percent of its premiums for this year.
Augustine was reportedly only person on the five-member board of selectmen to oppose the idea. “I thought it was unfair (for the taxpayers),” he said.
After he was unable to convince his fellow selectmen, Augustine decided to initiated the petition warrant article that would let town voters consider the question when they go to polls on election day. Augustine collected enough signatures to have the petitioned warrant article on the deliberative session ballot: “Should the town employees contribute more than zero percent towards the cost of their monthly health insurance premium?”
(As an “SB-2” community, Sunapee held its annual “deliberative” town meeting last month, where warrant articles were discussed and, if approved by the majority, altered; voters give final approval or disapproval on election day.)
At the deliberative session, former school board member Shaun Carroll proposed changing the language of Augustine’s article: “Since the town employees this year are being offered a high deductible health insurance plan at a lesser cost to the employee and the taxpayer, shall both share in that savings?”
Voters at the meeting approved the change, but Augustine believes that the town representatives made an egregious mistake. “While New Hampshire election law allows for a petitioned warrant article to be amended, the amended language cannot change the subject matter and the intent of the original petition warrant article,” he said. “The original petition warrant article was focused on ‘cost,’ whereas the amended article is focused on ‘savings.’”
“The amended warrant article entirely eliminated the subject matter of the original warrant article,” according to his legal action. “The subject matter of the amended warrant article deals exclusively with whether town employees should share in the savings, if any, derived from moving to a different health insurance plan. (It) eliminated the subject of whether the taxpayers consented to bear the tax burden for the employees or whether they voted to (support) a cost-sharing arrangement… The (town) acted unlawfully in disregarding the petitioners language seeking to require the town employees to share in the cost of their health care insurance premiums, as specifically stated in the petitioned warrant article.”
Augustine wants the court to order the town to restore his original petition warrant article wording prior to next Tuesday’s voting.
Last week, Augustine said that he’s not sure how voters will respond to his question but he wants to allow them the opportunity to provide some input for the selectmen to consider.
“This would let the voters voice their opinion,” he said. “And if their opinion is that they thought the employees should pay something, then change it for 2019. But we don’t want to get stuck for 100-percent of the costs when it’s a reasonable expectation that those costs will go up year after year.”
Both Augustine and Nashawaty agree that the 2018 health insurance plan cannot be changed at this time, and that the petition warrant article (whatever its language) is not binding on the selectmen but is only advisory.
In addition, Nashawaty said that the selectmen have not indicated that they intend to keep the town’s contribution to the employees health insurance cost at 100-percent in the future.
The court hearing is schedule for Thursday at 10:30 a.m. in the Sullivan County Superior Courthouse in Newport.
This story first appeared in the InterTown Record weekly newspaper of Sutton, New Hampshire, on March 6, 2018.