Town Meetings: Second go-around also looks at familiar issues
(from Maine Townsman, July 1996)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

 AUTHOR'S NOTE: As an increasing number of towns are turning to referendum to resolve issues, this recap of the latest spate of town meeting includes actions taken at the open meetings as well as in the privacy of the voting booth.

The Town of Bradley voted to abolish their traditional town meeting last month and replace it with a referendum. It was a town council initiative, driven by a desire to get a "true vote" on the town's budget, amidst the current climate of low voter turnout, Bradley Town Manager Don Thompson told the TOWNSMAN. The vote-118 to 87-was more than four times the amount of people (50) who attended the town's final meeting a few days after the referendum vote. Bradley, population 1,182, with 900 registered voters is one of 13 municipalities in Maine, with a council/ manager/town meeting form of government, that restricts town meeting to budget items.

But Bradley was not the only council-manager-town meeting form of government to wonder about the usefulness of its town meeting this spring. Also frustrated by the low town meeting turnout in recent years, the town of Mechanic Falls asked its voters-albeit through a non-binding survey on primary election day- whether they wanted to do away with town meeting completely and go to a "pure" council form of government .

With more than 2,000 registered voters, only about 100 regularly attend town meeting, Town Manager Dana Lee told the TOWNSMAN. So you would think townspeople would have said "yea' to the notion of doing away with the meeting. But that was not the case. According to the survey, 241 or 87 percent of those responding said "Keep Town Meeting ", although only 163 or 60 percent of those responding reported that they had attended town meeting in the past five years.

Mechanic Falls aside, Bradley's action raises to three those municipalities that conduct, if not all, a great majority of town business by referendum. The other two are located in southern Maine. York, a selectmen/ manager/town meeting community conducts all business by referendum, while Lebanon puts it most important budget issues, including town office salaries, out to referendum.

Town meeting as an institution aside, it should also be noted that two town meetings were postponed this season. One, a special town meeting in Harpswell, called to abolish the assessor's office was postponed due to a lack of safe space for the 1,000 voters who turned up to vote on the controversial issue. Another, the annual town meeting in Thomaston, postponed any action on the budget at their March town meeting due to an abatement request by the town's largest taxpayer, Dragon Products.

So much for the state of town meeting 1996. What follows are some of the issues that those who did attend the second spate of this year's town meetings wrestled with. 

SOLID WASTE

There appeared to be a larger than usual number of solid waste decisions before voters in this post landfill closure era. Some of the decisions were of the "fine-tuning" type; others were of the "not-in-my-backyard (nimby) type.

Pay-By-The Bag

On the issue of pay-by-the-bag, at least three towns - Hancock, Gouldsboro and Northport-considered adopting the increasingly popular management tool (see June issue of the TOWNSMAN). However, only one, Hancock, decided it was a good idea, agreeing to charge $1 a bag after you have used up 52 free bags.

They said "no" in Northport to the idea of paying $1 a bag . Some residents argued that to adopt the user fee would take away the one service the town provided that everyone used and that the practice would lead to dumping in the woods and encourage burn barrels. They also said "no" in Gouldsboro, voicing concern that it would lead to illegal dumping.

Voters in Richmond, which has had a pay-by-the-bag program in place for a number of years, used town meeting this year to approve a solid waste ordinance that bans anyone from burning anything but wood and brush, eliminating so called "backyard burn barrels". Without the local ban, residents in Richmond would have been allowed under state law to use such barrels, as the town does not use any tax dollars for the collection of solid waste, requiring residents to contract directly with any one of three licensed haulers serving the town. (See June, 1996 TOWNSMAN).

Sludge Spreading

If Richmond voters used town meeting to ban back yard burn barrels; Canaan voters used election day to halt, albeit temporarily, the spreading of sludge in town . By a vote of 289 to 59, voters said yes to setting a 180 day moratorium until the town can draft and adopt a sludge spreading ordinance.

The moratorium was prompted by a proposal from the Portland Water District to spread sludge on 250 acres in Canaan and Skowhegan. Skowhegan residents have reportedly circulated a petition for a special town meeting to ultimately create an ordinance that would ban sludge generated outside the community from being spread there. 

Canaan and Skowhegan are but the most recent municipalities being drawn into the sludge spreading debate. Earlier this year, Madison residents approved an ordinance requiring a $25,000 licensing fee from entities wishing to spread sludge in town. 

One of the first towns in Maine to enact a sludge spreading ordinance was New Gloucester, back in 1986. The ordinance is essentially a second cop-on-the-beat type ordinance, making sure the town is kept fully informed and involved in the spreading process. New Gloucester had good reason to enact the ordinance say some as the town lies over an large aquifer. The Town of Wilton adopted a sludge spreading ordinance in 1987 and went much further than New Gloucester in that it outright banned the spreading of sludge generated outside its boundaries.

While neither ordinances like New Gloucester's or Wilton's have been tested in the courts, a DEP spokesmen was recently quoted in the Lewiston Sun Journal as saying that ordinances like Wilton's that outright ban the spreading of sludge generated outside of town were just plain illegal in the eyes of the DEP. Legal or not, such ordinances have effectively discouraged the spreading of sludge in towns that have them. For background reading on sludge spreading, see the TOWNSMAN, May 1993.

CURFEWS

Curfews were on the minds of voters in at least two towns: Lisbon (pop. 9,524) and Monmouth (pop. 3,472) this spring. In mid-May, by a vote of 2-1, residents of Monmouth said "yes" to an ordinance that would establish a Saturday and Sunday curfew on those 18 years and under between the hours of 12:01 a.m. and 6 a.m. in public places. Not without exceptions, the ordinance will be reviewed by the selectmen in six months to determine its effectiveness.

In Lisbon, they adopted the curfew at town meeting by a slight margin. Lisbon's bans those under 18 years of age from public places between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. The first violation of the ordinance will result in a $100 fine and 10 hours of community service. The penalty for each subsequent violation will be a fine up to $500 and 25 hours of community service. Penalties for the parent or guardian are the same as for the minor. Lisbon's ordinance was first proposed after a spree of midnight teen vandalism last summer.

It is estimated that less than a dozen towns in Maine now enforce a curfew for minors. They include Belfast, Bowdoinham, Bridgton, Harrison, Lewiston, Millinocket, Rockland, Sanford and Waterville. While none of the ordinances have yet to be challenged in Maine, curfews are reportedly being challenged in other states as an abridgement of freedom of movement, association and speech.

It should be noted that while the U.S. Supreme Court has never decided whether governments can impose youth curfews, in 1993 the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Dallas, Texas curfew. Constitutional or not, police say that it is difficult to enforce such ordinances in municipalities that do not have police departments.

 LIBRARIES

There were an unusual number of votes focusing on the expansion of public libraries this go-round. Perhaps the largest of the proposed projects was in Brunswick where voters approved a $5 million bond issue by a vote of 2,235 to 972 to pay for an expansion and renovation that would triple the size of its Curtis Memorial Library.

The town will contribute $4 million to the library and loan an additional $1 million to the project; the library has promised to raise $1.5 million for the $5.5 million project. Reports are that the library already has raised its share of the agreement through private donations.

In Bath, the price tag for doubling the size of the Patten Free Public Library and making it accessible to the disabled was $3 million. Last year, Bath residents voted to approve a $500,000 library bond but the vote was contingent on the library raising the rest of the money needed for the project.

Trustees of the "regional" library, contacted Phippsburg, Woolwich, Arrowsic, Georgetown and West Bath asking them to help fund the capital project with contributions above what they already pay to operate the library, to in fact match Bath's contribution.

Woolwich said "no" to the $26,000 ($130,000 over five years) it was asked to contribute, saying it was a luxury they could not afford in tough economic times. They also said "no" in Phippsburg, which has its own, albeit small, local library, to contributing $92,000 over five years.

They said "yes" in Georgetown to paying $9,322 this year. They also said "yes" in West Bath, agreeing to borrow $87,000 to help out the library. And they said "yes" in Arrowsic.

Following the votes, Patten Library Trustees are reported to be considering scaling back the project.

Naples was another town meeting voting on monies for library expansion. Asked by the library trustees for $200,000, voters only okayed $100,000. Selectmen had counted on taking $100,000 from a capital reserve account and raising an additional $100,000 from taxes. Trustees say they will match the amount dollar-for-dollar.

PUBLIC SAFETY

Fire Department

To abolish or not to abolish the volunteer fire department and contract for services with a neighboring town. That was the question facing residents of Arrowsic (pop. 501) at this year's town meeting.

Supporters said the plan would save the town money and do away with the problem of attracting volunteers (according to reports only five of the 28 volunteers live in the town). They said that the town could not afford to make the $250,000 investment that was necessary to bring its fire department up to modern standards.

Opponents said the town would lose more than it gained by contracting out the service. The voters agreed and by a vote of 70 to 53 rejected a citizens' committee recommendation to abolish the department. Most of the town's 129 registered voters registered their opinions on the issue.

To create or not create a volunteer fire department so they could eventually stop contracting out for services with neighboring towns was the question before voters in Hartford (pop. 74i). Voters said "yes" and raised $10,000 for some equipment. Kathleen Hutchins, the town's administrative assistant, told the TOWNSMAN that the town was growing and voters decided it was time to create their own fire department. But for starters the "fire program" would concentrate on forest and brush fires and the town would continue its contract with neighboring towns at a cost of an additional $10,000 a year. 

Animal Control

In light of the rise of rabies in their part of the state, it was no surprise that voters in Wells approved an amendment that would put some teeth in their animal control ordinance. As approved, the amendment gave the police the power to fine residents who chose not to quarantine their pet after it bit someone or came in contact with a wild animal that carried rabies such as a fox, raccoon, bat or skunk. The fine would range from $100 to $1,000.

Under state law a vaccinated pet that comes in contact with a suspected rabid animal must be quarantined for 45 days. Many argue that state law carries no enforcement authority, hence the need for ordinances like that passed in Wells.

 CONTROLLING THE BUDGET

There are numerous ways to control the budget, and this year's town meetings were not shy about invoking them. From the wording of articles to the imposing of tax caps to the cutting of costs on the floor of town meeting, all the tools were in use. Some were successful, some were not.

In Mechanic Falls, they included the amount to be raised in the body of the warrant. By doing so, they capped the amount to be spent. Voters had only the power to reduce the amount.

In Tremont, a citizens' petition attempted to set a tax cap of three percent for the fiscal year 1998, a cap that the manager calculated would cut about $118,000 from the municipal and school budgets. Voters turned down the proposal, but not before the town's attorney questioned the legality of the proposed measure, saying it was "extremely questionable" because one town meeting cannot limit the actions of the next.

In Winter Harbor a citizens' petition also called for a tax cap that if approved would have frozen the tax rate at last year's level of $12 per thousand. The cap was in response to a proposed increase in the school budget that never occurred. When all was said and done, voters said "no" to the cap by almost 2-1.

In Milford, voters approved an ordinance giving them line-item control over their elementary school budget. Among other things, the school committee will be required to get voter approval to transfer monies from one account to another. But voters didn't stop there in this town of 3,017 they also cut $150,000 from this year's school budget, monies school officials said were needed to pay the salaries of five teachers and a half-time guidance councilor.

They were also on a cutting spree in Medway, slashing $75,000 from the town budget and $115,000 from the school budget. Reports say the cuts will reduce the hours of the town office, reduce the amount of salt-sand purchased, and no roads will be paved next year. There was even an attempt, albeit unsuccessful, to do away with the town's police department. Had the cuts not been made the mill rate would have risen by $6.60 per $1,000 of valuation The cuts reduce that increase by half. Contributing to the increase was a major cut in school subsidies.