FREEDOM (Feb 24): Small town politics can often be interesting, humorous, depressing, but rarely boring, except maybe in those small towns that live by the rules.
A lot of folks just get tired of hearing about it, deciding not to get involved in politics at all. Those of you who, like me, still believe in local government might find some recent events in Freedom interesting (or humorous, or depressing).
In October, our selectmen/assessors arbitrarily raised the taxes in Freedom by about $100,000 – not the appropriations, just the taxes. Their reasoning was that “the town was going broke” and they needed “some extra money.” When confronted with a citizen’s petition in December by Barbara Littlefield calling for a special town meeting to discuss and vote upon a rebate of this extra tax, the selectmen found an excuse to not honor the petition.
Faced with this unreasonable refusal by the selectmen, Carrie Bennett circulated another petition, this one calling for a special town meeting to be called and authorized by a notary public, at which time the same question could be considered. The petition was researched from Maine Municipal Association manuals on town meetings and elections, and the language was taken from an e-mail to the selectmen themselves, suggesting how the tax question should be worded.
Everything was done according to MMA’s guidelines. The warrants were posted by Sallyann Hadyniak, who does most of the postings for town meetings anyway. The warrant and return of warrant were notarized by Carol Richardson, former town clerk and no stranger to the operations of local government. The petition was turned over to Cindy Abbott, Freedom town clerk, who validated the signatures.
The meeting was held Dec. 28, 2007, at the Grange Hall. Ron Price, chairman of the Board of selectmen (despite being a resident of Knox) was the only selectman to attend. The town voted 45-7 to pay a tax rebate to all the taxpayers of Freedom. At their next meeting, the selectmen claimed the warrant wasn’t posted at Freedom General Store and was therefore an illegal posting.
This contention of the selectmen was contradicted by Sallyann Hadyniak, and by others who happened to walk into Freedom General and see the warrant. The selectmen had no evidence of this so-called oversight, and no one stepped forward to verify their contention. Nevertheless, the selectmen stuck to their view and decided that the vote was not valid and that they would not pay the rebate – end of story.
The events around other citizen-led efforts have a longer history, which I will try to keep brief: In 2006, our Planning Board, under pressure from a developer and using some language borrowed from other towns, wrote a Commercial Development Review Ordinance that was accepted by the voters.
The developer, Competitive Energy Services, then put in a permit application for a commercial wind turbine project. It was approved by the Planning Board but subsequently overturned by the town Appeals Board. Instead of amending the application and reapplying, as one might expect from a responsible developer, CES encouraged voters to repeal the ordinance in spite of the fact that only two or three pages had any relevance to wind turbines.
The ordinance wasn’t perfect, after all the Planning Board wrote a nearly 50-page document in about four months. Most of the ordinance was fine, though, and the few lines that weren’t could have been easily amended. Instead, a few vocal people in town convinced a majority that it would be better to throw the whole thing out and start over.
CES, which had pressured the town to write a commercial ordinance in the first place and had sent letters to all the voters in town in 2006 encouraging them to vote for the ordinance, turned about in 2007 and wrote letters encouraging voters to repeal the ordinance.
The selectmen stated the Planning Board would write a new ordinance and bring it back to the town. The town voted 147-112 to repeal the ordinance in June 2007. But in the time since, the Planning Board has not started work on a new ordinance and apparently has no plans to do so. According to the members of the Planning Board, they were in fact discouraged by the selectmen from writing a new ordinance.
So in January, Stacey Keating and Phil Bloomstein circulated a petition for a vote to reinstate the Commercial Development Review Ordinance retroactive to last June. The petition process and signatures were validated by our town clerk. The selectmen decided that this petition was invalid because the petitioners didn’t show the signers a copy of the ordinance in question. Therefore, the signers wouldn’t know which Commercial Development Review Ordinance was being discussed (a peculiar “problem” given that the town has only had one).
Jeff Keating attended the meeting and asked the selectmen what needed to be done in order to satisfy them. They gave him their instructions. Having far more patience than most people, he went forth with copies of the ordinance, obtained a sufficient number of signatures again, and presented it last Monday to the town clerk who again validated everything. The selectmen then decided to hold a meeting last Friday afternoon at 5:30 to consider the petition.
No one I know saw a notice of this meeting posted in Freedom, but evidently there was one posted in Portland because CES and their lawyer showed up. At the meeting, CES charged that this petition constituted a “ping-pong” situation (I’m not making this up) and therefore the petition should be denied. One could ask, since CES suggested that the town develop an ordinance in the first place, encouraged the voters to support it in the second, and then encouraged the town to repeal it in the third, why CES wouldn’t be considered the only player doing all the volleying.
Select Board member Lynn Hadyniak, herself a lawyer, thought the CES argument was ludicrous, but evidently it was appealing to another selectman, Tim Biggs, because he voted to deny the petition. Ron Price abstained, so another citizen’s petition effort died.
Freedom has had four citizen initiatives in the last three months that have been denied or ignored by our selectmen. Now you can be for or against surplus tax accounts, ordinances, wind turbines, water-extraction enterprises or other issues – everybody has a right to their opinion. But how about our First Amendment rights – how do you feel about that? Do you think that we should still have the right to vote in this town, to petition for a vote, or a meeting, and more importantly, to have our elected officials respect the wishes of the people?
By Steve Bennett
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