TOWN MEETING II: Controversies highlight second round

(from Maine Townsman, July 1998)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

AUTHOR’S NOTE: As stated in previous years’ summaries, any attempt to generalize about actions taken at Maine’s town meetings is difficult if not dangerous. One tries each year, nevertheless, to find the common thread(s), knowing full well that one finds what one looks for and may in fact overlook what one is not looking for. Also, knowing full well that for every example of an apparent trend there are numerous exceptions to it.

Create a controversy and they will come, some editorial writer once suggested, when looking for ways to increase voter turnout at town meetings. He may have been right. How else do you explain the fact that Hanover (pop. 282) had its largest voter turnout in history approving a building moratorium directed at a proposed controversial wood chip mill that had dropped its plans two weeks before the vote? How else do you explain the fact that not enough people (a total of 2,070 voters were needed; only 1,291 showed up) bothered to vote on the proposed "modest" changes to Sanford’s (pop. 20,279) charter, thereby voiding the 3-1 support of those who did bother to vote.

Sanford’s charter aside, much was accomplished in this second round of town meetings. To begin with, voters passed a number of trend-setting ordinances, many of which test the limits of home rule. In Union (pop. 2,121), it was a sludge-spreading ordinance; in Bridgton (pop. 4,213), it was a telecommunication tower ordinance; and in Dover-Foxcroft (pop. 4,627) it was a curfew ordinance. While in Jay (pop. 5,123), it was a reaffirmation of its commitment to the town’s environmental protection ordinance — the only one of its kind in the state.

Then there were those who took action to make their governments more efficient, cost effective, and user friendly. In Sebago (pop. 1,359), they voted to adopt the town manager form of government. In Buckfield (pop. 1,669), they agreed to hire a professional assessing company to conduct a town-wide revaluation. In Phippsburg (pop. 1,920), they voted to move the annual meeting to weeknights; while in Jay they voted to stick with last year’s decision to conduct the entire town meeting by (referendum) secret ballot.

A closer look at who did what during town meeting as well as at recent special town meetings and local referendums on June 9 follows.

ORDINANCES

Sludge

While the state has rules governing the spreading of sludge that partially preempt local laws, towns continue to enact their own ordinances to ensure compliance with the state standards. As noted above, this time round, it was Union’s turn and in doing so, it joined Farmington and Palmyra, two towns that passed sludge spreading ordinances during the first round of this year’s town meetings. In doing so, it joined the dozen or more towns in Maine with such ordinances

A long-time coming, the passage of Union’s ordinance was preceded by three moratoriums. Not only does the ordinance require a non-refundable $5,000 application fee and the establishment of a $35,000 escrow account to pay for the necessary expertise in reviewing the application and conducting additional testing, it also subjects violators of the ordinance to a fine of not less than $5,000 or more than $50,000 per violation, per day.

Money aside, Union’s ordinance also requires a battery of tests. Not only shall each load of sludge be tested at the plant prior to being transferred to the spreading site, the sludge is to be tested again when delivered and once again, prior to spreading. No spreading shall be allowed until the test results are received and evaluated.

Residents in Clinton, faced with plans to spread sludge from the Kennebec Sanitary Treatment District in Waterville on farmland in their town, at a special town meeting approved a 180-day moratorium until they can revise their existing sludge spreading ordinance. They also agreed to spend $1,500 to hire a professional to rewrite the ordinance that has been said to be more stringent than the state’s . It should be noted that municipalities are prohibited from enacting stricter standards than those enacted by the state. It goes without saying that the state has yet to challenge the legality of any municipal sludge spreading ordinance passed to date.

Wireless Towers

Not only Bridgton but Sebago and Edgecomb passed ordinances regulating telecommunication (wireless) towers. In doing so, they joined the growing list (Arundel, Troy, Ogunquit, Belfast, Falmouth, Freeport, Kennebunk and Yarmouth) of towns with ordinances regulating the siting and height of the towers.

While Maine has no laws governing such towers, federal law prevents towns from banning them but not from regulating them. Among other things, Bridgton’s ordinance requires a visual impact analysis and a detailed analysis "that describes why this site and structure is critical to the operation for which it is proposed". The maximum allowed height for a tower is 150 feet, with an additional 25 feet for each additional user--up to 200 feet (see article on telecommunication tower ordinances elsewhere in this issue).

Curfew & Free-Passage

They passed a new curfew ordinance in Sanford and a "free passage" ordinance in Dover-Foxcroft. Both address the issue of teens loitering in downtown areas.

This was not the first time Sanford passed such an ordinance. Nor was it the first time such an ordinance was approved for a one-year trial period. Under the new midnight to 5 a.m. ordinance, police may now discipline violators regardless of whether a complaint is filed first. Also, police are allowed to issue summonses for violations, rather than simply being required to bring violators home, an action some saw turning police into "babysitters". The new ordinance also allows the offenders to pay in community services. Sanford’s ordinance is said to be modeled after an ordinance in Dallas, Texas that has withstood court challenges over its constitutionality.

The "obstructing free-passage" ordinance that was adopted by voters in Dover- Foxcroft is said to address complaints about people loitering, skateboarding and in-line skating on streets and disrupting traffic in this town of 4,627 people. Among other things, the ordinance allows police to issue a warning to anyone believed to be restricting pedestrian traffic or access to any building open to the public. The fines, ranging from $10 to $100, will be used for the maintenance of a skateboarding and in-line skating park built by the town last year.

Environment

Jay’s 10-year-old environmental ordinance, the only one of its kind in the state, managed to survive a citizen challenge. The vote to repeal the award-winning ordinance was turned back 735 to 425. The ordinance was originally put in place in response to citizen concerns about the frequent environmental accidents at the International Paper Company’s Androscoggin mill a decade ago.

Proponents of the appeal said the town’s ordinance was merely a mirror image of what the state and federal government require and as such a waste of local tax dollars, not to mention the fact that it was adopted during a labor strike at the mill. Opponents of the repeal said the ordinance was needed to provide a "second cop on the beat" because of the inability of DEP and EPA to monitor and enforce their own rules and regulations.

Construction

Voters in Hanover and Blue Hill took different routes in dealing with proposed controversial construction projects in their towns. In Hanover (pop. 282), faced with a proposal by Mead Corp. to build a $12 million wood chip mill that would operate 24 hours a day, residents passed, albeit by a small margin of 69-58, a citizen-initiated 180-day building moratorium on any construction over 5,000 square feet. The vote came two weeks after Mead pulled the plug on the project, saying the concessions it had made to reduce noise and traffic would cost them an additional eight million dollars.

In Blue Hill (pop. 2,900), residents, not once but twice, voted to defeat a proposed moratorium on commercial construction greater than 5,000 square feet which targeted a proposed 11,000 square foot Rite Aid Drug Store on the outskirts of the downtown. They defeated the proposed moratorium 433-383 at the April town meeting. They defeated it again by a vote of 274-140 on June 9. At issue was the size and location of the store; opponents of the proposed new store have said they wanted Rite Aid to fit into the town, not the town to fit into Rite Aid.

GETTING GOVERNMENT IN ORDER

"Getting government in order" is about hiring a manager or an administrative assistant or an administrator to deal with the daily demands on government in a small town. It’s also about gaining or retaining control over those who work for the town, which is to say it is about choosing to appoint or elect the road commissioner, tax collector, treasurer, and clerk. And, last but not least, it’s about ensuring that the assessing of property is done in a professional manner.

Administration

In Sebago (pop. 1,359), they acknowledged that the growing demands on the board of selectmen were making it harder to attract candidates for the office and adopted the town manager form of government. In doing so, they raised the number of town meeting towns with managers to136 statewide. In doing so, they also agreed that in the future the road commissioner would be appointed, not elected, giving the new manager control over the town’s roads. According to reports, Sebago has considered hiring a manager for almost a decade. Selectmen are currently served by an assistant, who will be kept on to work with the new manager.

In Manchester (pop. 2,200), they didn’t go so far as switching to a town manager form of government, but they did decide to hire an "office manager" and combine the position with that of the town clerk. And while the office manager-clerk position will be appointed, the combined tax collector and treasurer position will continue to be elected.

In Buxton (pop. 6,876), where selectmen take turns working in the town office, earning $10 an hour, they also didn’t go so far as to propose a town manager; all they proposed was the hiring of a full-time "administrative assistant" to manage the daily business of the town. And it wasn’t the first time it had been proposed; it was the fourth time! Voters again said "no" by a vote of 1,007 to 524.

In Hope (pop.1,107), they voted to hire an administrator a few years ago and combined the job with that of the treasurer. Last year, a proposal to make the tax collector/clerk’s position an appointed one failed, but one (voted on by secret ballot) authorizing the selectmen to set the hours of the tax collector/clerk passed. This year, by a margin of two votes, the proposal to make the tax collector/clerk position an appointed one did pass. It should be noted that this year voting was again done by secret ballot.

In Union (pop. 2,121), it was the third town meeting vote on changing from elected to appointed tax collector/clerk/treasurer, and it was also the third time the proposal went down to defeat. Selectmen have been proposing the switch ever since the town adopted the town manager form of government in 1994 and the study committee proposing the new form of government suggested that it would make sense for the positions to be appointed.

In Sanford (pop. 20,279), which is noted for being the only "representative town meeting" form of government in Maine, there have been numerous attempts to do away with town meeting and replace it with a town council. All of them have failed. This time round, residents were presented with the opportunity to take what some viewed as "modest" steps in changing the way government operated, in the name of efficiency. Among other things, the changes called for making the elective positions of town clerk and town treasurer appointive, empowering the town administrator to supervise all department heads, and transferring some housekeeping duties away from the town meeting. While those voting said "yes" by a 3-1 margin, not enough people voted to make it count. Only 1,518 people voted; 2,072 or 30 percent of those voting in the last gubernatorial election were needed to make the results count.

Revaluation

Professionalizing the way the town assesses property was the focus of many a town meeting this season, including Bridgton’s (pop. 4,213), which last year had turned down a proposal for a town-wide revaluation at a cost of $200,000. Proponents argued that there was sufficient money in surplus ($1.3 million) to do the job and that it was badly needed as the last one was done more than ten years ago when real estate properties in the area were at their peak. Not only that, they argued that the town’s poor quality rating could cost the town Tree Growth reimbursement monies. Opponents said the revaluation could increase the town’s mill rate, which currently stands at $17.65 per $1,000 and put it at a competitive disadvantage with surrounding towns in terms of attracting new development. It should be noted that last year’s failed attempt in Bridgton appeared as a referendum question; this year’s approval occurred on the floor of town meeting, following open debate.

Winterport (pop. 3,363) voted 289 to 222 to contract with a professional assessing firm for a town-wide revaluation to conclude April 1, 2000 at a cost not to exceed $33,500 a year, with the first year sum to be taken from surplus. Like Bridgton, the town has never had a professional revaluation. Also voting to contract with their first professional assessor was the town of Buckfield (pop. 1,669).

Secret Ballot

Town meeting by secret ballot/referendum now exists in three towns: York (pop. 10,036); Bradley (pop. 1,116) and Jay (pop. 5,123). It was the first time for Jay and voters passed all of the 56 articles presented to them in the privacy of the voting booth. Among the articles was one asking if they wanted to continue to vote by secret ballot on all town meeting articles. They said yes by a vote of 683-480.

NEW SPENDING

There were a fair number of building projects approved this round.

In Presque Isle (pop. 10,079) voters said "yes" to constructing a new public safety building, not to exceed 24,000 square feet or cost more than $3.9 million. The vote was 666 to 422.

Residents also voted to build a new public works garage in Fairfield (pop. 6,888), approving a 200 by 80 foot garage at a cost of approximately $700,000. Plans to build the new garage, which will have 13 bays, have been in the works for six years.

They voted to build in New Portland (pop. 785), spending up to $75,000 for a new town office. The monies will come from a $60,000 loan from the federal Rural Development Agency and up to $25,000 from a reserve building account. To be built on a donated two-acre parcel, the building will house three offices and a meeting room. Residents were given four choices, including a "do nothing" option. The current structure lacks toilet facilities.