Referenda. The plural of referendum. There were a lot of them on November 5, in case you didn't notice.

While the states dealt mainly with the spending of money through bond issues (with disastrous results), those on the local level were mainly concerned with increasing control of local government (read school budgets) and decreasing spending, be it through secret balloting or tax caps.

This article looks at a few of those referenda as well as several environmental ones that appeared on the local ballots in an attempt to assess the mood of voters as the state and municipalities wrestle with the current fiscal crisis.

If the examples here are any red flag, it appears that voters want more control and are willing to buck their elected officials to get it. And that jobs aren't everything when it comes to the environment.

For the most part, the article relies heavily on reports in local newspapers, including the Central Maine Morning Sentinel, the Kennebec Journal, and York County Coast Star, the Ellsworth American, the Lewiston Sun-Journal and the Eastern Gazette.

Secret Ballots

By and far the most numerous and popular local referenda on November 5 focused on controlling the budget through secret balloting, be it the school budget or the town budget or in the case in one municipality, both.

School Budgets

Disenchanted with their annual school district budget meetings, wanting more control over education spending, voters in three school administrative district voted on November 5 to break from the traditional way of approving of the budget.

Instead of gathering at a district-wide meeting and voting by a show-of-hands, taxpayers in SAD 47, SAD 49, and SAD 75, said they'd prefer to vote in the privacy of a voting booth back in their own towns, at their leisure.

The secret ballot method was permitted by a change in state law several years ago and to date it is reported to have been used in seven districts.

The three new districts to adopt the secret ballot method, as of November 5, include the following eleven towns: Oakland, Belgrade and Sidney (SAD 47); Clinton, Fairfield, Albion and Benton (SAD 49); and Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Harpswell and Topsham (SAD 75).

In addition, four towns in SAD 40 (Union, Waldoboro, Warren and Washington) reaffirmed their commitment to the secret ballot which they adopted by a vote of 2-1 in 1982. (The fifth town, Friendship, reportedly left the question off the ballot.)

Proponents of the secret ballot said it would provide greater control over the school budget because it would allow a greater percentage of voters to cast a ballot. Voters could cast their ballot at leisure by voting day or evening in their respective communities instead of having to attend a scheduled district meeting in a neighboring town.

Proponents also stressed the fact that there was undue pressure when everyone could see how other people vote; with a secret ballot, they argued, "people could vote their own mind." Some said the switch would check the vested, special interests of the teachers, and school administrators who pack the audience at the budget meetings, producing "rubber stamp" votes.

Opponents of the switch had argued that the "quantity" of the vote could not make up for the "quality" of the vote. Secret balloting, they argued, could lead to uninformed balloting. They stressed that the open meetings were needed to explain the complex details associated with the school budget, noting also that the budget, process prior to the vote, allowed for "incredible scrutiny".

Opponents also pointed out the added cost to the towns of voting by secret ballot. One vote is costly enough. But if the articles fail, they pointed out, the districts will have to hold another referendum or as in some cases take the question to an open meeting.

As the tallies showed, the proponents won the day overwhelmingly.

Town Budgets

But school budgets were not the only ones that are going to be subjected to secret balloting as a result of November 5 voting. York's first charter, adopted on November 5, will require a secret ballot vote not only on the school budget, but the municipal budget as well.

In the largest turnout ever seen in York (population 9,818) for a referendum vote, York's charter passed 2,427 to 1,758 despite claims that it violated state law and would, if passed, be challenged in court.

In addition to the secret vote on the two budgets, the charter creates a powerful budget committee that can overrule the selectmen and school committee on budgets.

Under the provisions of the charter, each town and school budget will be up for a yes or no vote at a budget referendum in late spring. If a budget is defeated, a smaller appropriation may be filed for reconsideration. Otherwise, the department must make do with the same amount as appropriated the previous year.

Under the new charter, the secret ballot will be drawn up by the budget committee. The budgets recommended by the selectmen and school committee will be listed, but voters will only be able to vote on the budget committee figures. The seven-member budget committee will consist of elected and appointed members. Voters will be mailed a copy of the warrant 14 days before each referendum.

Five other charter proposals have been defeated by York voters since 1969. The nine-member board of selectmen first considered a town council and representative meetings, then seized upon the idea of a secret ballot. At public hearings, residents complained over town meetings that lasted upwards of eight hours or more attended by "special interests." The secret ballot appears to be an attempt to change that.

Tax Caps

Taxcaps and spending caps. They've been enacted and repealed in a number of Maine municipalities in recent years.

Given the state's threat to slash revenue sharing and aid to schools, they could be seen by some as a tool to keep property taxes from filling the void left by the state.

There was one referendum on tax caps on November 5 - in Winthrop - and it went down to a resounding defeat.

By a vote of 1,582 to 983 voters in Winthrop (population 6,000) rejected a proposal to limit any further property tax increases to 3 percent annually. If passed, it would have allowed the town to boost property taxes by no more than $129,000 next year. Fifty-three percent of the registered voters cast their ballot.

Born of frustration with recent double digit property tax hikes in recent years, the proposed cap mobilized the citizenry into two groups. Those for and those against.

Those against said given the current crisis and the state's proposal to slash aid to towns and schools, the cap was "impractical"; that it would curtail essential services too much, that it would hurt schools and other services in the long run; that it was short-sighted not to mention simplistic.

Not only was the cap defeated, but three of the four seats on the Winthrop Town Council were filled by anti-cap candidates.

Despite its defeat, the proposal was seen to engage residents in fruitful discussions of town finances. Two citizens groups the Winthrop Citizens for Responsible Spending (pro) and the Committee to Save Winthrop (anti) led the debate holding various forums.

At one forum, officials from Saco, a former tax cap municipality, told of their experiences a decade ago, noting that it was repealed a year after it was approved but not before it did damage to schools and services that in some cases took decades to undo.

Bond Issues

While all the states bond issues, save one, went down to defeat on November 5, bond issues in at least two coastal municipalities were approved by voters.

Bath. By a narrow margin, voters in Bath approved a $2.4 million bond issue to pay for the first phase of an estimated $4 to $7 million effort to collect and treat chemical-laden water leaking from the city's landfill into a nearby creek. The voters were faced with a choice: either fix it up or close it.

As a voter approved project, the bond issue is exempt from the town's two-year-old spending cap that is pegged to the Consumer Price Index. The vote was 1,444 to 1,319.

Kittery. Further south in Kittery, voters approved the borrowing of $4 million to upgrade and expand the town's sewer treatment plant which has reportedly been operating beyond its capacity, polluting the Piscataqua River.

Passage of the bond issue does not mean an increase in property taxes; the bill will be paid entirely by the sewer users, increasing their annual bill by roughly $95 a year. Kittery users only account for 48 percent of the use, splitting it with Portsmouth Naval Ship Yard and the Town of Eliot.

Environmental

Budgets and bond issues aside, several referenda dealt with the environment:

Bucksport. Voters here, in a non-binding referendum, told Applied Energy Services that they did not want the Virginia-based company to build a $300 million plus coal-fired power plant on the Penobscot River.

For more than a year, the controversial proposal, which included selling its steam to the nearby Champion Paper mill in Bucksport to feed the mill's power plant, had pitted neighbors against each other.

Weighing the economic gains derived from the construction of the plant against possible health risks, Bucksport residents turned out in full force and voted 1,260 to 920 to reject the plant. The vote attracted 61 percent of the registered voters in the mill town.

Only one of several pro-plant candidates in the 13 way contest for three seats on the town council was elected, causing some residents to say the politics of the town had been "redefined" by the issue.

AES, which has said all along that it "would not go where it was not wanted," was reported to have been encouraged by the fact that almost 1,000 residents were in support of the proposed project, which has gotten preliminary approval by the planning board.

Auburn. Voters in this city appear to be headed toward resolving a nagging issue that could have far reaching effects on its future. On November 5 they voted 5,260 to 2,625 for a recycling ordinance that met head on the question: who owns the city's trash?

Under the city's old ordinance, all of the city's trash is owned by the Mid Maine Waste Action Corp. The city has a 55 percent stake in the $43 million waste-to-energy plant.

By their vote, residents have gone on record as favoring recycling and expressing the view that materials segregated for recycling are not the property of MMWAC.

As a result of the vote, the now-revised solid waste flow control ordinance includes paper and plastics among its recyclable items.

The vote has been a while in coming. Back in September 1990, Auburn Citizens for Recycling turned in petitions with about 2,600 signatures of residents asking for a municipal recycling program. The council, however, did not pass the proposed ordinance amendment and it did not get on last November's ballot.

GIS maps, James Sewall Company

Charters: Creations/Amendments

Lisbon. While York enacted its first albeit questionable charter (see above); the voters in Lisbon (population 9,457) defeated plans to establish a charter commission by a narrow margin of 1,362 to 1,150, ending the latest movement to change the town's form of government.

Observers said that many opposed the vote because they thought they were voting to change the current town meeting form of government rather than to explore alternative forms of government to incorporate into a charter. Proponents said the town was plagued with extremely low attendance and special interest groups at town meeting. It was Lisbon's third attempt at a town charter in eight years.

Dexter. Further north in Dexter, residents appeared to be reflecting the anti-incumbent mood of the nation, amending their charter to limit the number of terms held by their elected officials. By a vote of almost 2-1, residents voted to limit the terms of their town councilors to two consecutive three-year terms and to limit the term of the chairman of the town council to two consecutive one-year terms.

Voters in Dexter not only limited the terms of their councilors, they also passed a referendum question that would give the voters more of a say on issues that concern them by amending the charter to allow the council to put questions before the voters that they do not wish to act upon. Prior to the vote, only  the residents could petition for a referendum. Now the council can select items for referendum.

Waterville. Further east in Waterville, voters amended their charter to tighten up the way the city buys things by making it more difficult to buy things without going to bid.

The amendment requires a two-thirds vote of the council to exempt an item from bid; before the change only a simple majority was required. The new policy also requires written evidence that the item should not go to bid. And it allows the city to legally piggyback on bids by other government agencies, such as buying oil with the school department.