LOCAL REFERENDA: This year’s issues were plentiful and varied
(from Maine Townsman, November 1998)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

EDITOR’S NOTE: As a form of information exchange, the TOWNSMAN regularly provides its readers with town meeting and referendum actions of Maine municipalities. Municipal officials should be cautious about trying to copy an action taken by residents of another community. Once passed, local referenda questions are often subjected to intense public and media scrutiny; the legality of some will be tested in court. Maine Municipal Association does not endorse or present as models any of the following local referenda actions.

A good number of newsworthy local referenda were acted upon this November. One upheld a ban on smoking in restaurants; another enacted an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting homosexuals; another ended local partisan politics; another, following spirited community debate, gave the go-ahead to spend money and redevelop the former Bates Mill in Lewiston; and two others dealt with expansion plans at two of the major landfills in the state: Augusta’s Hatch Hill and Sawyer Environmental Facilities (SERF) in Hamden.

But the one that captured national attention was an advisory asking the selectmen in Newport (pop. 3,071) to draft an ordinance prohibiting - in the words of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition – "topless gardening". As NPR reported, the morning after, such activity was "upheld" by the voters.

Newport’s newfound notoriety developed this past summer when a young, bare-breasted woman was seen mowing her mother’s lawn. A neighbor said it was indecent and a citizen petition placed the question on the ballot. While the question grabbed national attention, local voters were less than enthused. According to the town office, voter turnout was down considerably compared to the last gubernatorial election (1,072 vs. 1,224) and the advisory was soundly rejected 775-283.

Newport’s newfound notoriety aside, its low voter turnout was not unique. According to the Portland Press Herald, voter turnout statewide was the lowest of any gubernatorial race in Maine since 1954. About 44 percent of the people eligible to vote actually cast ballots, compared with nearly 55 percent four years ago. That means people wishing to place a "citizen’s initiative" on the statewide ballot for the next four years will not have to get as many signatures as in previous years, as the state constitution ties the number of signatures needed to the number of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election.

Low voter turnout aside, this article attempts to wrap up the results of the numerous local referenda. In doing so, the TOWNSMAN was struck not only by the newsworthiness of some of the ordinances but also by the go-ahead given by most voters when faced with major capital expenditures. The TOWNSMAN was struck also by the number of non-binding questions that were on the ballot. And, last but not least, it was struck by the number of issues that were being voted on for a second or third time: local votes challenging previous statewide votes, citizen votes challenging recent council votes, and revotes on repackaged issues.

CHANGING GOVERNMENT

Charters

Charters are the "constitutions" of local government which spell out, among other things, the distribution of power within the various branches of government. At last count, about 75 towns and cities in Maine have them. While most municipalities with charters have a council form of government, a good number of town meeting communities have also adopted them.

November is the traditional time to tinker with or make major changes to local charters. It’s also a good time to begin the process of creating them, which is what the folks in Buxton (pop. 6,941) did. By a narrow margin (1,158 to 1,113), they said "yes" to creating the town’s first charter commission. It’s not the first time residents in this growing town have tried to reshape town government to reflect its changing needs. Since 1985, they have rejected attempts to hire an administrative assistant to the board of selectmen; on three occasions the hiring was tied to a proposal to expand the three-man board of selectman to five.

There were 17 proposed changes to the Biddeford (pop. 20,277) charter this year. Of note, were two – one that did away with partisan primary elections and another that trimmed the power of the mayor. Voters approved both. Some said the votes signaled the end of the 130-year reign of the Democratic Party. Only two Republican mayors have been elected since 1860. One thing, however, is for sure: the mayor will no longer have veto power over the school committee, will no longer be able to make a motion, and will only be able to vote to break a tie.

In Sanford (pop. 20,208), there were seven proposed changes to the charter. It was the fourth vote in five years on charter reform. During those years, there had been two unsuccessful attempts to abolish the town’s unique representative town meeting and replace it with a council form of government. Earlier this year voters, approved a package of modest reforms, but not enough people (less than 30 percent) voted to make it count. This time, enough people voted to make it binding. As a result, the town administrator’s authority has been increased and the positions of town clerk/tax collector and town treasurer are now appointed ones.

Changes, major and minor, were also made to charters in Augusta, Brunswick, Westbrook, and Oakland. In Augusta (pop. 20,556), voters "tweaked" the charter to better run the city. They increased the school board and the city council to eight members each, staggered the terms to avoid the potential of an experience purge, increased the term of office from two to three years, granted the mayor and chair of the board of education voting privileges, and removed the mayor’s veto authority. They also streamlined the referendum process and mandated a five percent budget cash reserve.

In Brunswick (pop. 20,379), voters approved the addition of two at-large members to the school board so that it mirrored the city council. In Westbrook (pop. 15,554), voters approved a proposal that would allow (budgeted) expenditures of up to $3,000 without city council approval. Prior to the vote, it was $1,000. They also voted to make all references to office holders gender neutral.

In Oakland (pop. 5,830), voters overwhelmingly supported amendments to the town charter that changed the way petitions were addressed. They extended the time period for voting on a citizens’ petition from 45 days to one year. They also established the same ground rules for petitions proposing ordinances and petitions seeking to overrule council action. In the future, both will require signatures by at least 10 percent of those voting in the last gubernatorial election.

Ordinances

Charters aside, there were a small number of noteworthy ordinances dealing with civil rights, public health, and land use that were acted upon, not all of which were approved.

Gay Rights

In South Portland (pop. 23,085), voters approved a city-wide gay rights ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations. In doing so, voters said they were taking back ground they had lost in February when a state law banning discrimination of homosexuals was repealed. In doing so, South Portland joined Portland, Long Island, Bar Harbor, Sorrento, and Orono in having a gay rights ordinance on the books.

Like Portland’s ordinance, South Portland’s carries exemptions for housing. For example, the law would not apply to the owner of a two-unit building who lives in the building and wants to rent the other unit. However, the ordinance differs from Portland’s by defining volunteers as employees, so that organizations like the Boy Scouts would have to comply. It also differs from Portland’s in that the individual, the city or both can take a complaint to court; in Portland, the law requires the individual and not the city to bring legal complaints of discrimination.

Townspeople also took up a gay rights ordinance in Ogunquit (pop. 928). It failed there by nine votes in a record turnout of 789 voters – 72 percent of those registered. The results run contrary to the town’s overwhelming support of the state’s anti-discrimination legislation that was repealed earlier in the year. Supporters of the ordinance have indicated that they may attempt to place the issue before voters again next year.

Recall

Buxton voters not only approved the establishment of their first charter commission, they also approved (1,232 to 1,049) a proposed recall ordinance that would apply to not only the selectmen but other town officials as well, like the town clerk, road commissioner and planning board members.

It should be noted that recall amendments are not common in towns without charters. (At last count there were 35 charters with recall provisions). It wasn’t until 1993 that the legislature amended Title 30-A Section 2602 (6) to enable a town to enact an ordinance for the recall and removal of elected municipal officials with the exception of school board members. It is believed that 36 states allow recall elections for state or local officials; most of them are in the West. Some speculate that the growing number of recalls reflects a renewed interest in government.

It should also be noted here that the vote to recall Ogunquit Selectman John Miller failed by a vote of 304 in favor and 473 opposed. Miller had come under fire in recent months from residents who said he had abused his power and was anti-gay.

Smoking

Portland (pop. 63,323) voters had their say on smoking in restaurants. By a vote of 13,184 to 8,522, they upheld action taken by the city council last March which, by a vote of 7-2, banned smoking in all restaurants except those that have separate ventilated rooms for smokers. Under the ordinance, bars are exempt unless they are part of a restaurant. Of an estimated 200 restaurants in Portland, an estimated 60 percent of those restaurants banned smoking prior to adoption of the ordinance.

Portland’s ordinance is the first of its kind in the state, although similar bills have been introduced in the legislature. According to the Portland Press Herald, four other states and hundreds of cities and towns across the country have enacted such ordinances.

Curfew

Vassalboro (pop. 3,945) joined the growing number of cities and town adopting a curfew ordinance. Its ordinance, which requires anyone 18 years of age or younger to be off the streets by 10 p.m. unless accompanied by a parent or guardian, passed by a 5-1 margin. At last count, there were 15 cities and towns in Maine with curfew ordinances.

Land Use

A number of towns took significant and dissimilar actions on their land use ordinances: some repealed them, some strengthened them.

In Dexter (pop. 4,305) they repealed their land use ordinance by a vote of 700 to 619. The town council had adopted the ordinance this past June, after a citizen’s committee proposed it, the planning board fine-tuned it and public hearings were held. But a citizens’ petition signed by approximately 500 people brought it to the November referendum.

In Limington (pop. 2,942), voters said "no" by a margin of 10 (453 to 463) to putting more restrictions on their gravel pits. A citizens’ petition this past June had put a moratorium on new gravel pit permits. The proposed ordinance would have increased the setback from 150 feet to 300 feet from the nearest property line and reduce the number of hours per week gravel pits could operate. The town has several gravel pits and some residents fear the town will be overrun when the state begins to widen the Maine Turnpike.

In contrast, voters in Southwest Harbor (pop. 2,146) did away with the ambiguities in their land use ordinance, returning the wording to an earlier time when a "more restrictive" philosophy prevailed.

And, by a vote of 835 to 537, Berwick (pop.6,562) added its name to a growing list of Maine municipalities (Troy, Ogunquit, Belfast, Falmouth, Freeport, Kennebunk, Yarmouth, Bridgton, Sebago, Edgecomb) to amend their land use ordinance to include standards for cellular towers. Saying it was planning ahead, Berwick established a criteria for tower height, limiting it to 199 feet, including the antenna in an apparent attempt to avoid the blinking lights that are often associated with taller towers.With few exceptions, lights are only required by the Federal Communications Commission on towers over 200 feet. The ordinance also calls for establishing escrow accounts to dismantle the towers if needed.

While in Hampden (pop. 6,356), voters decided not to amend their zoning ordinance to allow for a proposed major expansion of the Sawyer Environmental Recovery Facility (landfill) in their town. Saddled with its continuing "non-conforming" status, the commercial landfill, one of two in the state, will be limited in its expansion. Amending the ordinance, to add commercial landfills to the list of "conditional uses" in the town’s industrial zone, would have enabled the facility to extend its life 18 years. The action follows closely on the heels of the approval of the expansion by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

SPENDING

A lot of non-school capital spending was approved. Some of the proposals had come before voters at least once before. This time, they all gained approval.

Landfills and Wastewater Treatment

In Augusta, voters approved a $9.7 million bond issue to expand the city’s Hatch Hill

Landfill, to accommodate 1.1 million cubic yards of solid waste. The landfill, which is slated to be full by the year 2000, serves Augusta and many surrounding municipalities, all of whom will share in the expense. It sits on 440 acres and the plan is to develop 18 more acres of the site to take care of the next 20 years.

In Waldoboro (pop. 4,864), it was the third time voters had been asked to replace their 32 year-old wastewater treatment plant and the first time they agreed to it. In doing so, they approved raising the debt limit of the Waldoboro Utility District from $1 million to $2 million in order to borrow $1.5 million for the project, which has already attracted $4.5 million in state and federal grants.

Swimming Pools and Libraries

In Cape Elizabeth (pop.8,855), voters approved a $2.2 million proposal to renovate and expand the town swimming pool by a vote of 3-1. Estimates were that it would have cost over $500,000 just to close the pool. It was calculated that the cost to the taxpayers would be 20 cents per $1,000 of valuation. In Falmouth, voters approved the establishment of a committee to study the feasibility of building a municipal swimming pool.

In Gorham (pop. 12,818), voters overwhelmingly approved spending $500,000 to match private donations to double the size of the town’s historic and popular public library. The money will be taken from the town’s surplus account. Supporters have been working for over a decade toward expanding the 90 year-old library. In 1995, voters rejected a referendum on library expansion by a 2-1 margin. Critics said the previous $1.6 million project was too ambitious.

Town Office and Fire Station

In Kennebunkport (pop. 3,416) voters approved (888 to 758) spending $1.6 million to build a new town office and fire station. Last year, voters approved spending $490,000 to purchase a local church with preliminary plans to convert it into a new town hall. After considering several other options, plans this year are to tear down the church which sits on 4 plus acres and construct a 8,000 square foot town hall and 6,000 square foot fire station on the site. The new town hall will more than triple municipal office space and storage.

Economic Development

In Lewiston (pop. 36,960), voters gave the city council direction for continuing the development of the Bates Mill complex. The non-binding vote gives the council the go-ahead to develop portions of the former mill into a convention center and purchasing additional land for parking. The citizen-initiated question asked residents if they agreed that no more money should be spent on the complex. The "no" vote won in every precinct of every ward. The same question will appear on the 1999 ballot; the results from that vote will be legally binding.

SCHOOLS

New Schools

In Falmouth (pop. 8,247), where the schools are said to be the fastest growing in the state, voters overwhelmingly approved the construction of a $21 million high school that is said to be needed to relieve the worst school overcrowding in the state.

In Augusta (pop. 20,556), where the city’s high school is in dire need of replacement, there was a 3-1 non-binding vote in favor of constructing a new high school on a new site. What to do about the high school has been the question since the early 70’s when it became clear that the recent addition was not adequate nor was the landlocked site appropriate. It is expected that a new high school will cost $25 million. The vote gave the city council the go-ahead to plan for the new high school.

School Tuition

While Augusta and Falmouth were seeking approval to build or plan for a new high school, voters in Carrabassett Valley (pop. 345) were seeking to continue tuitioning their 33 students to SAD 58 in Kingfield. Carrabassett Valley has been sending it students to Kingfield since the early 70’s but it never had a formal contract with SAD 58, which is comprised of five towns: Avon, Eustis, Kingfield, Phillips, and Strong. With overcrowding becoming an issue, the need for formal action became a priority.

While the "advisory" vote by the district’s residents on a proposed 10 year contract was 852 to 734, three of the towns voted it down and two approved it. At the time this article was being prepared, it was unclear how the district’s school committee would vote. Some members, eyeing Carrabassett Valley’s high valuation, have argued that the town should join the district. The town says it is unwilling to do so because it would be paying about 45 percent of the district’s budget while sending less than 40 students to school there. But the town says it is willing to pay more than the state mandated tuition, enough in fact to pay for an addition to relieve the overcrowding. Currently, the town provides its own bus and driver to transport the students to Kingfield.

Budget Voting

Kennebunk and Kennebunkport (SAD 71) became the latest members of a school administrative district to abolish the district-wide school budget meeting in favor of a secret ballot vote in their respective towns. Their residents voted 3-2 to do so, bringing the number of school administrative districts in the state voting this way to over 30.