Town Meeting II
(from Maine Townsman, July 1997)
by Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The TOWNSMAN reported on the first wave of town meetings this year in its April issue. This article reports on the action taken by the increasing number of cities and towns (approximately 128), which, in adopting a July-June fiscal year, hold their annual meetings in late spring, early summer. The author acknowledges that any attempt to generalize about town meetings is not only fool-hardy but dangerous; nevertheless, one attempts to do so to satisfy that persistent drive to "get a pulse" on what’s happening.

Last year, at this time, it was the Town of Bradley (pop.1,191) that voted to replace the public show of hands at town meeting with a secret ballot at the polls. This year, it was the Town of Jay (pop. 5,171) bringing to three the number of municipalities that have abandoned the traditional open town meeting in favor of a referendum. The first to make the switch was York (pop. 9,720) in 1991.

As noted in previous articles, towns turn to referendum as a way to draw as many people as possible into the process, be it a single issue or an entire budget; they also turn to it to protect voters from the peer pressure of the floor, especially when it comes to controversial issues.

But what if they held a referendum -- as they did this spring in Kennebunk and Falmouth to act on proposed changes in their town charters -- and not enough people voted to make the vote count? It happened in these two towns.

"Build a controversy and they will come," said the Biddeford Journal Tribune in a June 14, 1997 editorial, after lamenting the low town meeting turnout in its circulation area and chalking it up to the fact that there was nothing really going on right now and reminding readers that "citizens will do their duty when it calls with a loud enough voice."

Which is what they did in Madison (pop. 4,673), where 32 percent of the voters turned out to act on a proposal to disband the town’s six-member police force and contract with the county sheriff’s department for police services. The vote was 705-361 to keep the department intact.

High turnout or low turnout, a fair amount of action was taken on the usual issues of taxation and control and capital costs .

 

CONTROL

  Control of everything and everyone from the school budget to the town clerk to the nocturnal habits of youth was the focus of many a meeting this spring. As to be expected, not a lot of everything proposed was approved.

 Controlling the School Budget

  As noted above, Jay was the third, and most recent, municipality to abandon the open town meeting vote on its municipal and school budget, and everything else, and go to secret balloting at the polls. What started out in Jay as a petition to vote on the school budget by referendum as a means of controlling it, was extended to the town budget as well, in the name of consistency.

In Acton (pop. 1,774), they also went to secret ballot on the budget, but didn’t go quite as far as Jay. Some 500 voters turned out to vote 245-190 (by referendum) to require a paper ballot on the floor of town meeting for any article in the warrant over $50,000. Some said this action was initiated in order to take control of the school budget. There were 18 such items in this year’s warrant. And while all of the items did pass, the process added another three hours to the meeting. (Some had suggested that the 18 items would add nine hours to the meeting, figuring that in the past each secret ballot had taken at least 30 minutes to conduct! And that was not including the discussion). It turned out each article took about 20 minutes to complete.

Secret ballot voting on the budget aside, in Lisbon (pop. 9,608) the focus was centered on the so-called "advisory board" that for more than three decades has scrutinized the school and town budgets, slashed school budgets and forced elected officials to justify transferring money from one account to another. Voters said "no" to a proposal to eliminate the board. As one member of the board noted, "You would see the school budget running out of control if it weren’t for the advisory board."

Controlling Elected Officials

  Appoint or Elect. To appoint or elect the town clerk and treasurer? The annual see-saw of a question that for the most part has citizens lining up on the side of elected officials and selectmen lining up on the side of appointed officials.

In Mount Vernon (pop.1,407), residents voted by a large margin to return the town clerk to an elected position, reversing a vote that had been held at a poorly attended special town meeting in March, when residents had voted by a margin of one to let the position be filled by appointment.

They also rejected appointing the town clerk in Detroit (pop. 802). Selectmen had suggested switching to an appointed position when the person who held the job for the past ten years resigned because they feared a person with no experience could be elected. They had argued that by appointing a clerk an interview could be held and references checked. Residents argued that when they gave up their right to elect the people that serve them, they would be giving up a lot.

And in Hope (pop.1,062), while they did not switch to an appointed clerk, they appeared to reach a compromise. Residents voted 65 to 25 (by secret ballot) to allow the selectmen to set the hours of the clerk to include some evenings and storm days. The clerk objected to the hours, noting that evening visits were sparse and that the recommended hours would be confusing.

But not all the action favored an elected clerk. They approved the switch from an elected to an appointed clerk in both Richmond (pop. 3,129) and Madison (pop. 4,673). It was to be expected in Madison, where recently the town’s elected clerk was convicted of embezzling more than $255,000.

And the debate did not solely focus on the clerk. In Bowdoinham (pop. 2,231), attention focused on the road commissioner. Residents appeared to side with the town manager, rejecting a petition-generated article that would have switched from the current system in which the appointed town manager serves as the road commissioner and manages one public works employee to a full-time elected road commissioner. The town manager had argued that if the town elected the road commissioner there would be no way to ensure that the person was qualified for the job; moreover she argued that the road commissioner would be in control of over a third of the town budget, an idea she called "risky".

Recall. When it comes to control, appointing or electing an official is just one tool. Recall is another. Voters in Gouldsboro (pop 2,036), said "no" to repealing their recall ordinance by a vote of 46-34. Those seeking to repeal it had charged that under the ordinance officials could be recalled for arbitrary reasons and that the ordinance needed to be redrafted. The vote to retain the ordinance means the ordinance will be in effect when Gouldsboro voters go to the polls on July 7 to decide whether or not to recall the chair of the town’s planning board, a proposal put forth by a citizen’s group charging the chair lacked proper authority when she consulted with the town’s attorney.

 Controlling Youth & Mass Gatherings

  Voters said "no" when it came to controlling their own comings and goings and that of the youth in their town. In Richmond, they overwhelmingly voted down a proposed curfew which would have banned youth under the age of 18 from all public places between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. during the week and after 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, saying this was a parental not a police issue. They did, however, approve a loitering ordinance, giving the police the right to disband groups of people who are obstructing traffic through public places. It is estimated that less than a dozen towns in Maine enforce a curfew for minors.

Residents in Norway (pop. 4,729) said "no" to a mass gathering ordinance that would have required a permit and police protection for any gathering of over 100 people. It was proposed by a member of the board of selectmen in response to a three-day mass gathering adjacent to her home every year to gather signatures for the Maine Hemp Initiative. One objection to the ordinance was that the 100-person threshold could apply to weddings and funerals and many agricultural events. The most recent mass gathering ordinance to gain voter approval occurred in the Town of Starks. It too was in response to a hemp-related gathering in its town during the summer.

 PUBLIC BUILDINGS

  Control aside, there was a lot of movement forward this second round of town meetings, as many, but not all, municipalities approved or did not approve monies for the purchase of land and the construction of town offices, fire departments, schools and libraries.

 Buying Land

  They said "yes" in Arrowsic (pop. 481) to spending $42,000 that is already on reserve for the purchase of almost seven acres on which to construct a fire station or town hall in the future. The town, which has a one-room town office, no public schools and a garage-sized fire station, reportedly holds its annual meeting outdoors under a tent. But the vote doesn’t necessarily mean that a town hall or fire station will be built; it depends on whether growth occurs in town as a result of a new bridge being constructed in Bath, say officials, adding if not, the purchase is a good investment that can be sold at a profit.

They said "no" in York (pop. 9,838) to spending $775,000 on a 4.1 acre historic site on which to build a new town hall, library and village green. The vote against the proposal was 2 to 1. Opponents said it was too costly ($400,000 for purchase of the land and $330,000 to move existing buildings) and would create a bottleneck in the heart of the village. Opponents said land should be purchased on Route 1. Proponents said the plan to create a new village center was critical to the vitality of the community.

 Building

  Town Offices. Among the projects approved this go-round was a $450,000 new town office in Rockport (pop. 2,907). A similar proposal had been struck down by voters in 1989 and 1995. As they say, if at first . . . The vote was 372-202. The 3,686 square foot building will combine all administrative functions under one roof. At present, the town clerk and finance director are in the municipal building/fire station and the manager and assessor are in the annex, a block away.

Also winning approval by a vote of 48-24 were plans for a new $283,000 town hall in Lyman (pop. 3,416). Voters approved taking $100,000 from the town’s Capital Improvement Fund and borrowing the rest. In the past few years voters have turned down requests to add to the existing town office; some say because the plans were too nebulous.

Fire Stations. In Acton (pop. 1,774), they approved plans for a $500,000 station, after rejecting the budget committee’s recommendation for a $700,000 building. They also approved a new fire station in Bowdoinham (pop. 2,231), agreeing to allot more than $450,000 to the project. The plan includes a 10-year bond issue of $363,000 and $90,000 from the public safety reserve account. And, last but not least, they said "yes", voting 29-19 to borrow money to build a new fire station in Burnham (pop. 1,009) at a cost not to exceed $100,000.

Schools. There were winners and losers when it came to school construction. Residents in Bremen, Damariscotta, and Newcastle gave an overwhelmingly nod of approval to a $3 million school construction project that will be totally funded with local dollars. The addition to the Great Salt Bay Elementary School will eliminate the patchwork quilt of portable classrooms now surrounding the building.

Residents in Rangeley overwhelmingly said "no" to a proposed $1.8 million addition to the Rangeley Lakes Regional School, which houses K-12 students from Rangeley and four neighboring plantations. It too was to have been built without state assistance. It would have cost the owner of a home valued at $50,000 an additional $24.24 on taxes. Selectmen earlier this year had voted 4-1 against the project because the cost would have been borne solely by Rangeley residents.

Libraries. The expansion of the regional Patten Free Public Library in Bath was given a nod of approval by voters in Phippsburg, reversing last year’s "no" to a request to pay up $18,000 a year for the next five years. They also said "yes" in Woolwich, making a commitment of $131,000 over five years. Last year Woolich voters said it was a luxury they could not afford in these tough economic times.

The vote to support the library in both towns was driven by the fact that the stakes were higher this year: if they didn’t vote "yes", residents would have lost their borrowing privileges unless they personally paid $40 for a card.. Which is to say, "Build a controversy and they will come."

The doubling of the 150 year-old library will cost $2 million. Last year, Bath, Georgetown, West Bath and Arrowsic said "yes" to chipping in, not only to double the space, but also to add computer technology and handicapped access to the building.

 VALUATION

  There’s a new kid on the block when it comes to tools to increase a municipality’s valuation: annexation of adjacent unorganized territories. At least one town took such an act under consideration this season, while others attempted to find money to undertake a revaluation of their existing properties.

 Annexation

  While they didn’t give the selectmen the go-ahead, Medway (pop.1,875) residents, responding to a request from the town’s economic development committee, authorized the selectmen to "look into" what it would do to the tax rate if the town were to annex some 6,000 acres of an adjacent unorganized township. The current rate is $19.90 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. Portions of two of Great Northern’s dams, along with the high voltage power lines owned by Great Northern and Bangor Hydro-Electric Co., are in the 6,000 acres Medway is looking at. If officials were convinced this would be an advantageous move, the annexation would have to be approved by the Legislature.

According to reports, neighboring East Millinocket attempted to annex a smaller portion of the same land (Township A, Range 7) in 1991. Although the Legislature approved it, one resident of the unorganized territory opposed it, so the land could not be annexed. No residents live in the area being looked at by Medway.

It should be noted that while such takeovers are rare, the Maine Legislature this session approved the annexation by the Town of Chester (pop.429) of more than 8,000 acres of land from Township 2, Range 8. Officials say the newly annexed land, which will extend the town’s border to I-95, will be zoned and used for commercial and industrial development. It is expected that Chester will gain more than $72,000 in additional revenues; the town’s valuation will increase by nearly $3 million; and the town will pay an additional $17,000 in local education costs and county taxes. Chester’s tax rate is currently $8.65 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

 Assessing

  The engine that drives valuation and therefore taxes and the tax rate saw little action this spring, save for the Town of Arrowsic (pop. 481), where voters approved spending $5,000 to hire an assessors’ agent to help the selectmen with a town-wide revaluation. One selectman was quoted in the area newspaper as saying, "There have been a lot of irregularities in the town’s values because so many (selectmen) have had their hands in the assessing business. I think having someone from the outside is going to make things much fairer."

They said "no" in Bridgton (pop. 4,328) to taking up to $185,000 from surplus to pay for a revaluation by the town’s current assessors’ agent John O’Donnell Associates. Like in Arrowsic, selectmen argued that the relative valuations (ratios) had gotten seriously out of wack in the past decade from the patching and pasting that was required following a revaluation that occurred 10 years ago.