After a legal review and extensive discussion, the Wiscasset Board of Selectmen voted 3-2 on Tuesday, Aug. 1 to schedule an open town meeting to reconsider the planning department budget.
Selectmen Ben Rines and Bob Blagden opposed the motion, calling the special town meeting “disrespectful” and “an insult” to voters who overwhelmingly rejected the planning department budget at the annual town meeting in June.
“It’s wrong to hold a special town meeting to overturn a ballot vote,” Blagden said. The open town meeting was called for by a citizen’s petition that was turned in with 222 signatures in early July.
Selectmen tabled the matter at their previous meeting to allow the town attorney to review the legal opinion of the Maine Municipal Association. The association recommended that selectmen honor the wording of the petition, which specifically called for an open town meeting.
Selectmen questioned whether they had to hold an open town meeting, or whether they could place the matter on the ballot for the November election.
According to a memo from town attorney Shana Mueller, selectmen must call for a special town meeting or place the petition question before voters at the next scheduled town meeting within 60 days of receiving the petition.
There is no legal obligation for selectmen to honor “petitioners’ clearly indicated wishes that the town meeting be held as an open town meeting,” Mueller said. The board may also decide the petitioners’ request is unreasonable, and refuse to bring the petition to a town vote, she said.
“I think we should consider the petition frivolous and it should be ignored,” Blagden said.
Three petitions have come before the board of selectmen in the past few years, and each has been honored, Chair Judy Colby said.
Petitions on firefighters washing vehicles at the station, on the Maine Department of Transportation project, and on entering into a lease-purchase agreement for solar panels on municipal buildings have each gone to a townwide vote, Colby said.
“I feel we need to honor what the petition says,” she said.
Rines said all other petitions have gone to a referendum vote.
The petition called for an open town meeting “to reinstate the Municipal Planning Budget that failed to pass at the Annual Referendum Town Meeting on June 13,” according to the petition. The municipal planning budget of $66,764 was rejected at the annual town meeting 466-265.
The open town meeting was requested because petitioners “felt time was of the essence,” Selectman Katharine Martin-Savage said. The petition was in circulation prior to the departure of former Town Planner Ben Averill and petitioners hoped he would be able to stay in the position, she said.
Averill has since accepted a position with the Auburn Economic and Community Development Department.
Petition supporters say the town planner is crucial to economic development, which grows the tax base.
Voters have rejected the budget twice. The first time was in 2013, but voters reinstated the position at a special town meeting called by the board of selectmen.
Opponents of the position say the town is too small and the tax burden too large to support a full-time planner.
Despite the objections of Rines and Blagden, selectmen voted to hold an open town meeting. Anderson will check with the town clerk about the timeline needed to schedule an open town meeting and report back to the board, she said.
Wiscasset must also hold a special town meeting to deal with the Wiscasset Water District’s rate increase, which the town did not budget for, Anderson said.
“This is what a special town meeting is for – unanticipated emergencies,” Rines said.