RSA 197:3 and RSA 31:5 Control Any Warrant Article Resulting in Legal Requirement to Spend Money

Bedford Chapter-Citizens for a Sound Economy v. SAU #25-Bedford School District
Bedford Chapter-Citizens for a Sound Economy v. SAU #25-Bedford School District
No. 2004-439
Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The citizens of Bedford have sent their students to Manchester high schools for more than 70 years. In 2002, however, the voters of the town failed to approve a 20-year tuition agreement that had been negotiated with Manchester, and began to investigate whether they should construct their own high school facility. At the 2004 annual school district meeting, voters were presented with two alternative warrant articles, the first calling for the construction of a high school, and the second calling for ratification of the original 20-year tuition agreement negotiated with Manchester. Neither warrant article passed.

A group of citizens then petitioned the school district to hold a special meeting to consider a warrant article that would “…authorize and direct the Bedford School Board to approve and execute, on behalf of the District, the twenty year High School Maintenance (tuition) Agreement with the Manchester School District…” A special meeting was noticed by the school board and held on June 1, 2004. No permission to hold the special meeting was sought or obtained from the superior court. The plaintiff in this lawsuit asked the court to declare that the article could pass by a simple majority of the voters actually present at the special meeting. However, the trial court ruled that pursuant to RSA 197:3, the article could not pass unless the number of ballots cast at the special meeting represented at least one half of all of the school district voters entitled to cast a ballot at the March annual school district meeting. This appeal followed.

The Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. Even though the warrant article language did not call for the school district to “raise and appropriate” any funds, the tuition agreement would have constituted a contractual promise to pay money to Manchester in future years. The Court reasoned that if the limitation upon raising and appropriating funds in a special meeting could be avoided simply by changing the language in a warrant article to call for approval of a contract, the statutory limitation would be useless.

While this was a school district case, the same principle applies to town meetings, since RSA 197:3 and RSA 31:5 are virtually identical. Regardless of the words used in the warrant article, if the passage of the article will result in the legal requirement to spend money, that article will be controlled by one of these two statutes. Unless the spending article is considered at an annual meeting, the governing body will either need permission from the superior court to hold a special meeting, or a majority of all of the voters eligible to vote will need to cast a ballot at a special meeting for the expenditure to be authorized.