Several Local Issues on November Ballot

(from Maine Townsman, November 2008)
By Doug Rooks, Freelance Writer

As if a hotly contested presidential race, votes for U.S. Senator, Congress, the Legislature, county and municipal offices and three statewide referendum questions were not enough, Maine voters considered an unusually large number of local questions on their ballots on November 4.

Many of the questions concerned town and city charters and restructuring local government, and there were numerous decisions on municipal infrastructure, land use, and a variety of other issues. Some of the more unusual referendums involved a local property tax reimbursement program, whether left turns will be permitted in a downtown area, and whether voters support spending on municipal wind turbines.

Charter Revisions

Where changing the course of municipal government goes, voters seem to prefer slow and steady to abrupt and ambitious.

Topsham, one of many growing towns where declining attendance at town meeting has caused concerns, saw its charter commission recommend, 7-1, that it abandon the selectmen-town manager form of government and replace it with a seven-member town council, elected at large. Voters rejected the change, 2,911-2,350, however with an estimated 76 percent turnout.

The vote followed a long and frequently impassioned debate over the proposed town council, which featured more than a dozen op-eds in the BrunswickTimes Record, most of them against the new charter. Opponents who said eliminating town meeting went too far added that there were other changes that could be attempted, including recall provisions for selectmen, referendums on the budget and ordinances, and a code of ethics for town officials. Richard Snow, who chaired the commission, said it often takes several attempts to come up with changes acceptable to voters.

A short distance north, Lisbon voters continued to refine their decision two years ago to switch from town meeting to a council form of government. Eleven charter changes that the town council proposed were approved by wide margins. One would allow budget referendum votes to coincide with state elections in June, while another makes it clear that the council has the final say over the school budget, as it does in most council municipalities.

Where charter commissions were content with more modest changes, they were generally successful. Proposals to replace open town meeting votes with referendums were approved in a few coastal communities, including Wells and Kennebunk.

Kennebunk approved a number of significant changes in governance, including expanding the board of selectmen from five to seven members, and requiring referendum votes on land use ordinances as well as the budget.

Hermon voters were confronted with an unusual proposed change, presented by petition, that would have amended the charter to allow them to fire the town manager, bypassing the town council. The council initially declined to submit the question to the voters, but a Penobscot County Superior Court judge ordered them to do so. Voters decisively rejected the amendment, 2,113-789.

In Augusta, where a group of residents had clashed repeatedly with the city council over whether its petitions should appear on the ballot, a set of charter changes, some on the issue of citizen petitions, was approved by a vote of 5,177-3,254.. One of the changes says that the city attorney, when objecting to language on a petition, must propose an acceptable variant so signatures can be gathered in a timely manner. The new charter, which succeeds one enacted in 1998, also allows the city council to overturn a successful citizen-initiated referendum vote, by a two-thirds majority, two years after the original enactment.

Portland may be gearing up for another vote on whether to have an elected mayor following easy approval of a new charter commission. Portland has long been unusual, but not unique, among Maine cities in not directly electing its mayor. Instead, the nine-member city council chooses one of its own members for the honor, traditionally for one year, in a post frequently described as “ceremonial.” Citizen ideas about a Portland mayor run anywhere from a typical first-among-equals presider at council meetings to a full-time administrator.

Bar Harbor is also embarking on a study of town government with an overwhelming, 2,295-401 vote in favor of a charter commission. There, too, low attendance at town meeting has led to concerns about whether voters are being adequately represented, and in this case it is the town council opening the door to possible changes.

Falmouth approved some relatively minor charter changes by a 4,071-1,860 vote and neighboring North Yarmouth changed its charter, 2,288-107, to align local elections with the June primaries.

And Poland voters have adopted their first town charter. The charter was strongly favored in a June election, but failed because not enough votes were cast. On November 4, the vote counted with a 2,147-749 tally in favor.

A few other municipalities, without charters, voted on noteworthy changes to the structure of their local government.

In Buxton, the largest municipality in the state without a town manager, residents took the first step toward hiring one by voting 2,400-2,108 in an advisory referendum to encourage selectmen in this town of 8,500 to move forward with the idea. A formal proposal is expected to emerge within 18 months.

Benton voters, however, made it clear they wanted no part of an administrative assistant to selectmen. A committee studying the idea recommended against it in August, and voters confirmed that verdict by voting against the idea, 1,005-398.

Skowhegan selectmen wanted to have the town manager appoint the road commissioner, town clerk, and treasurer, positions that are now elected, but voters rejected each of the three questions by nearly 2-1 margins.

Land Use Ordinances

As is frequently the case, voters were busy in considering new land use ordinances around the state. Bar Harbor became one of the first communities in New England to enact a “Dark Skies” ordinance that seeks to blunt the impact of outdoor lighting. The new rules require all new lights brighter than 100 watts to be “full cutoff fixtures,” which focus light downward rather than having it dispersed throughout the vicinity. The ordinance grandfathers existing lights.

Camden voters declined to ban residences from an area where Wayfarer Marine planned to build condominiums, defeating an initiated referendum on the subject by a 1,433-1,330 vote. The decision reversed a previous voter-enacted prohibition on such development in November 2007, and followed the expiration of a six-month moratorium on such projects.

In Paris, voters agreed to provide greater protection for the Hall Pond watershed. The 50-acre pond supplies water for the Hebron Water Co., which has 38 customers in Paris and Hebron. The measure, approved 1,704-860, will require a boat launch to be gated, and ice fishing shacks will be banned. Gasoline engines will not be allowed on boats, but electric motors will be permitted.

York responded to a heated debate over proposed zoning changes in York Beach village by approving them overwhelmingly, 4,865-2,950. Opponents said it was unwise to allow 100 percent lot coverage in the densely built parts of the village, but supporters said it was necessary to encourage reinvestment in aging structures. A second article to create affordable housing in the town’s growth zone was also approved, 4,728-3,319.

Castine rejected expanding its historic district ordinance, passed in 1995, to cover the entire town, saying no by 428-327. The town has been embroiled in a controversy with Maine Maritime Academy, which purchased a historic house outside the existing institutional zone with the intention of using it as the headmasters’ residence. The issue is currently before the Superior Court.

Infrastructure

Proposals adding to municipal infrastructure did pretty well, considering the sharp economic downturn apparently in the offing, though they were not universally successful.

Southwest Harbor voters surprised selectmen by rejecting purchase of a fire truck estimated to cost $668,000, by a vote of 567-437, and also, in an advisory vote, opted for the least expensive option among fixes for the police station and town office. They declined to endorse either a new $3 million building, or retrofitting the vacant Medical Clinic building for $1.7 million, preferring instead limited renovations at the existing sites. That option would cost $700,000.

Lincolnville was more enthusiastic about a new fire station, but that may be because the 15-acre site will come as a gift from the Lincolnville Volunteer Fire Department, a non-profit, as will the $1.1 million needed for the new station. The money comes from sale of old Lincolnville Telephone Co. securities that were donated in 1985 by Hazel Heald for the purpose of building a new station.

A defunct bridge site will again be made functional in Freeport after voters authorized spending $350,000 to build a one-lane span on Burnett Road.

And in China, voters decided to spend up to $15,000 to erect a wind turbine on town property by a 1,905-398 vote, the widest margin among seven questions on the ballot.

Infinite Variety

It wasn’t all about charters, land use ordinances, and capital projects on election day, as can be seen by the following.

Biddeford considered a petitioned article to close the municipal airport, which detractors consider too expensive to be maintained by local taxes. But voters strenuously disagreed, defeating the question by more than a 4-1 margin, 8,064-1,714. Some 1,300 voters had signed the original petition to get the measure on the ballot. Airport supporters cited a 2006 state study showing $3.6 million in annual economic benefits.

Scarborough voters had a big decision to make when they revisited the question of a “racino” at the Scarborough Downs harness racing track. When a 2003 statewide referendum was approved allowing slot machines at both of the existing harness tracks, in Bangor and Scarborough, companion local referendums were approved in Bangor but defeated in Scarborough. Track owner Sharon Terry decided to bring the question back this year, citing declining margins from racing. Hollywood Slots, which runs the Bangor operation, ran the local campaign in Scarborough, which included pledges for a local $8 million annual share. But voters said no, 5,804-5,565.

Kennebunkport will become one of the first municipalities with its own version of the state circuit breaker program, which provides rebates to homeowners paying more than 4 percent of their income in property taxes. The new program, approved 1,960-468, will offer up to $500 from the town in addition to the state’s maximum reimbursement of $2,000. Last year, 285 town residents received state circuit breaker payments.

And finally, Bangor voters struck a blow for all those confused or frustrated by one-way streets, prohibited turns, and too many traffic lights. They reversed a ban on left turns onto Howard Street from State Street that was enacted in February 2007 by the city council on a trial basis, and made permanent that October.

Opponents of the ban began gathering signatures, soon reaching the required 2,600. The left turn allows a convenient route to the Bangor Mall, and drivers apparently resented having it taken away. The tally was 11,097-3,958, indicating that the public’s preference for convenience over the council’s concerns about safety.