Local Referenda: Citizens more interested in control than change
(from Maine Townsman, November 1997)
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 the 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.

This article continues a practice begun back in November 1991. In an attempt to detect and monitor emerging issues and current trends in local government, the TOWNSMAN began to record the results of the local referenda held in conjunction with the statewide election.

In the years since beginning this practice, the TOWNSMAN has focused mainly, but not solely, on those referenda designed to not only change but to control local government. In that arena it has, among other things, reported on the growing use of citizen initiatives to take stronger control not only of the municipal budget, but the school budget as well. It has also reported on the reluctance of citizens to change their form of government.

This year’s crop of local referenda continues the trends of recent years. In Lubec, taxpayers agreed that in future years they will be voting on the school budget (SAD 19) by referendum rather than in an open district meeting; they did the same in SAD 56 (Searsport, Frankfort and Stockton Springs). This brings MMA’s tally on the number of SADs now voting their budget by referendum to 33 (45 percent).

But control comes easier than change. In Sanford, they again said "no" to abolishing their representative town meeting in favor of a council/manager form of government. And they said "no" in Portland, when asked if they wanted a charter commission to propose changing to a strong mayor form of government.

That said, this article dips into some of the charter changes and spending projects that dominated this year’s round of local referenda; it also looks at some of the school issues that dominated the voting in more than one community.

CHANGING GOVERNMENT

Form of Government

While there are two basic forms of town government - direct, as in town meeting and representational, as in council, there are numerous variations. At last count, Maine had 209 towns that have a town meeting/selectmen form of government; 135 have a town meeting/selectmen/manager form of government, 20 have a council/manager/town meeting form of government, 20 have a council/manager form of government, 17 have a council/mayor/manager form of government and four have a council/ strong mayor form of government. The numbers rarely change from category to category, but that doesn’t mean people haven’t tried.

As noted above, they didn’t get to first base when it came to calling for a vote to change to a so-called "strong mayor" form of government in Portland. Voting 6,169 to 9,709 against establishing a charter commission, residents nipped in the bud any attempt to change to a popularly elected mayor, who would be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city, aided by an administrator.

Currently, Portland’s mayor is elected by the city council and the city manager is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city. According to reports, it has been more than two decades since Portland voters last considered a popularly elected mayor. At that time the idea was approved by 45 percent of those voting. The current form was adopted in 1923. Currently, four cities in Maine have some variation of the strong mayor form of government: Waterville, Westbrook, Saco and Biddeford.

They got to first base last year in Sanford when they established a charter commission to come up with the blueprint for changing from a representative town meeting form of government to a council-manager form of government. But they didn’t get any further this year, as voters in this town of more than 20,000, by albeit a slim margin, said no to abolishing their town meeting. The vote was 2,038 to 1,869.

Currently, residents elect a five-member board of selectmen, served by a town administrator, and they also elect 147 individuals who gather in the spring and fall for a town meeting. Twenty-one town meeting representatives are elected from each of the town’s seven wards. The defeated proposal called for a seven-member town council, a town manager, and a 14-person budget committee, which would build and recommend a budget to the council. It also called for a full-time staff attorney, an appointed finance director to take the place of the elected town treasurer, an appointed town clerk/tax collector to take the place of an elected town clerk/tax collector, and a provision for a citizen initiated recall and veto.

Attempts to change Sanford’s government have been ongoing for more than half a century. In 1935, in response to a growing population, it adopted its current representational town meeting form of government. Last year’s defeated proposal ( 3,529-2,893) would have replaced the current system with a strong mayor/council form of government. While this year’s proposal appeared more moderate than the previous one, it apparently still wasn’t the fix people were looking for.

Anti-nepotism

Bucksport voted to amend its charter so that no councilor or spouse could hold any other town office or have full time employment (exclusive of schools) during their term of office. Before the vote, the husband or wife of a full time employee, elected to a seat on the council, could have been challenged on practically every vote, especially budget ones, with a conflict of interest .

Essentially that’s how the anti-nepotism provision in Auburn’s charter used to read. But back in 1994 it decided to look at the issue in terms of contemporary workplace trends and personal relationships. The result was a broad and flexible policy that did not absolutely exclude some categories of people from holding certain positions. Not only did it broadly define the term "personal relationship", going far beyond the usual husband and wife relationship, it also made provision for "management plans" to allow people to supervise relatives or others with whom they have a personal relationship, while protecting the city from the possibility of employees acting in their own self interest.

Auburn reportedly changed its charter when faced with the fact that the best qualified person for the position of school superintendent was married to a principal in the same school system.

Spending Caps

Voters in Brunswick said yes to a charter change that gives the go ahead to town councilors to approve projects under $500,000 without having to pass an ordinance and hold a public hearing. The change raises the level from $100,000 which was set in 1971. They also said yes in Lincoln to raising the spending cap on the town council from $50,000 to $100,000 on a single capital improvement without residents approving it in a referendum vote. The $50,000 threshold was set five years ago.

MANAGING GROWTH

While the heyday of comprehensive plans and rapid growth of the late 80’s is behind us, it doesn’t mean that all municipalities have adopted a comprehensive plan or that there hasn’t been a lot of fine tuning of the ordinances associated with them. It should be noted that if you accepted money to develop a plan from the state, your plan should be adopted by January 1, 1998; if you didn’t accept a planning grant, then you have until the year 2003. After that, your zoning and land use ordinances will be void.

Land Use Ordinance

They said no, overwhelmingly, in Vassalboro to a 73-page land use ordinance that represented more than four years work by the town. It was to have consolidated existing town ordinances with new regulations for future construction. Were it to have passed, it would have divided the town into four districts: rural, residential, village and commercial. Town officials said it was designed to establish buffers for homes and commercial operations of the future. The only people to have been affected by it would have been those involved in new development. In trying to figure out why it was defeated some said people were afraid that it smacked of zoning.

Impact Fees

With 22 articles on the ballot in York, where town meeting is conducted via referendum, perhaps the most innovative was the one that established an impact fee for new residential construction and additions to established homes. It passed by an overwhelming 2-1 margin. The fees will be set aside to pay for future school construction growth. The fees will range from $1,150 for a new three bedroom home to $2,900 for a five bedroom home.

A homeowner who wants to add a bedroom to a three bedroom home would owe the town $950. In approving the fee, York joined the Town of Trenton in Hancock County that passed a so-called school impact fee in the early 90’s after seeing its school population double since 1977. Trenton’s was believed to be the first in the state to assess such a fee.

Zoning

York voters also eliminated fast food establishments in all zoning districts. Prior to the vote, they had been prohibited on Route One and all residential zones. The amendment applies the prohibition to both general and limited development zones. However, it takes exception with ice cream stands, creating a special category for them. Proponents of the change argued that it addressed the need to preserve the community’s small town character.

This is not the first time York voters have grappled with the fast food issue. Back in 1993, they defeated an attempt to develop a fast food zone along part of Route 1 by a vote of 2 to 1, leaving in place the ban (on Route 1) that was enacted in 1982. Officials were quoted at that time as saying that the outcome should send a clear message that the people of York do not want Route 1 in York to look like Route 1 everywhere. This time round they went the "full Monty".

SPENDING

TIF Revenues

With a 20 year TIF agreement with Champion International now in place, Bucksport officials are already planning on how to spend the town’s 25 percent share of new tax revenues. On November 4, they went to the voters seeking their approval for constructing and improving new and existing recreation facilities as well as for developing a business park with roads and utilities on 20 acres of land. And they got it.

Voters said yes to spending $425,550 over the next four years on recreation facilities; they also said yes to spending up to $800,000 to develop the business park. As envisioned by officials, more than half of the $425,550 could come from the tax increment financing revenues. On the business park, the town says it is seeking a $400,000 grant from the Maine Office of Economic and Community Development to help defray the cost of development; the remaining monies could come from the tax increment financing revenues.

Buckport’s 1994 comprehensive plan provided that the town upgrade and develop its recreation facilities. Town officials are proposing to use the monies to develop a roller skating and blading rink, a new soccer field, and a new football field. A lighted basketball court and a three-mile nature and cross-country trail are also planned. The park is part of a five-year economic development strategy adopted in 1995, which also includes the development of a marina on the Penobscot River and the revitalization of the downtown business district.

On Sewers

If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Faced with a limited moratorium on all new sewer hookups to its 20 year-old sewage treatment plant, Rockland voters finally said yes to a $8.55 million upgrade of the plant, rejecting a more expensive $33 million option to relocate and build a new plant. The upgrade is intended to modernize the plant and dramatically reduce odors and sharply cut the amount of untreated wastes entering the harbor.

Two prior votes on the upgrade had failed, one in 1996 and one in June of this year. As a result, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection had placed a limited moratorium on all new sewer hook ups in Rockland, threatening new development. It is expected that the moratorium will be lifted as a result of the November 4 vote.

As to be expected, sewer rates will increase for the average household by about $50 a year, with the biggest burden falling on FMC Corporation; the company currently pays $850,000 a year, almost triple what it paid three years ago. Its bill is expected to reach slightly over $1 million, which is about half the cost of operating the plant.

SCHOOLS

Construction

Voters in the four towns of SAD 61 (Bridgton, Casco, Naples, and Sebago) gave the green light to spending a little over $11 million on three school construction projects: a two story addition to Lakes Region Middle School, a doubling of the size of the Bridgton Elementary School, and a rebuild and expansion of the athletic complex at the Lake Region High School. About half of the amount will be raised from local taxes.

They also said yes to spending monies for school improvements in SAD 34 (Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont and Swanville). The money will be used to make repairs on the aging Belfast Area High School.

While it was only a non-binding survey of residents, who went to the polls on November 4, some 300 residents in Baileyville (pop. 2,070) said they preferrred building a new local high school over building a new regional high school with Calais and Eastport. They were given four options including making the existing local high school, which also serves students from Princeton, Talmadge, Cooper and Meddybemps, handicapped accessible. The school was built in 1955 and is currently under pressure to bring it into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Plans now call for the creation of a study committee, whose members would most likely include representatives of Georgia Pacific, which reportedly pays about 85 percent of the town’s taxes.

Consolidation

By a 41-vote margin, voters in SAD 25 (Patten, Sherman and Stacyville) said yes to a plan to close four aging elementary schools and consolidate all district pupils in the junior and senior high schools next year. A similar plan had been rejected by a 2-1 margin in 1994. Preliminary estimates put the cost of making the modifications at about $700,000. Officials say that the money saved by closing the four schools about $265,000 a year as well as money already budgeted for renovations should be sufficient to do the job.

During the past 10 years, school officials, as well as study committees, have pushed for the closure of the older schools to adjust for enrollment that has declined 35 percent since 1978 and for decreases in state aid. Enrollment during the past 20 years has dropped from 904 to 590 and is projected to drop another 100 pupils in the next five years. The schools that will be closed range from 50 to more than 90 years in age. The two secondary schools currently house 400 students; they have the capacity to hold 700; there are 200 elementary school students.

According to reports, after the schools are closed , the district, in accordance with state law, will offer the buildings back to the towns for the sum of $1 each, the same price the district paid for them in the 1960’s when the SAD was formed. Opponents of the consolidation have said the loss of the schools is equal to the loss of a community’s identity and the special quality of life people can only get in their small town schools.

FOOTNOTE: As the TOWNSMAN was going to press, a petition had been submitted in the Town of Patten that would bring the school closing issue back to a referendum vote (in Patten).