Push for town charter underway in NG

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Former New Gloucester Selectboard member Stephen Hathorne, speaking at the podium, is one of several residents who want to create a town charter commission. 

NEW GLOUCESTER — A former Selectboard member and several other residents are pushing for New Gloucester to form a commission to explore the creation of a town charter. 

“I am for charter,” Stephen Hathorne said at the Aug. 20 Selectboard meeting. “Even a year ago, I would have told you no way in heck would I stand up” in support of a charter.

Hathorne, who lost a reelection bid this year to current Council Vice Chairwoman Linda Chase and Selectboard member Karen Gilles, is helping to lead the charter effort. 

“I have learned a lot … I am no longer scared, I am willing, and it’s exactly what this town needs because of the actions this board has done with term limits,” Hathorne said Monday night. “This will give local control.” 

New Gloucester’s lack of a charter loomed large in a debate about Selectboard term limits over the past year and a half. If a municipality does not have its own charter, the operation and organization of its local government is based on state statute. Maine statute related to the election of municipal officers does not include term limits. 

Residents at the 2017 town meeting voted 66-44 in favor of a town ordinance that limited Selectboard service to three consecutive three-year terms, and required members to be off the board for three years before running for it again. But in early April 2018, the Selectboard voted 3-2 to find the ordinance legally invalid based on input from a Maine Municipal Association attorney. 

Two of the board members who voted to invalidate the ordinance, Chase and current Chairman Steven Libby, were set to be term-limited this year and next year, respectively.

Libby was absent Monday night, as was Selectboard member Lenora Conger. 

John Salisbury, who identified himself as a new resident to New Gloucester and past executive director of the Maine Municipal Association, spoke before the council Monday to give an overview of the charter process. 

“For the community to have it’s own charter, really it sets its own constitution, it sets its own rules,” Salisbury said. “And I think that’s a better process.”

He suggested a charter helps “citizen understanding” by providing a town document that residents can reference rather than turning to state statute for the town’s governing rules. 

Under state statute, a charter commission can be formed in order to create a new municipal charter by two different avenues: a decision from the municipal officers (in this case, the Selectboard) or a citizen’s petition. 

In either of those cases, the municipal officers are then supposed to put the question of whether or not to create a charter commission to town voters at the next election or by scheduling a special town meeting within 90 days. 

If voters approve the commission, statute sets its size at several town voters who would be elected in the same way that municipal officers are, along with three members appointed by the Selectboard. The commission is then tasked with submitting a report, including the proposed charter, to the Selectboard, before the charter goes to residents for a vote. 

“The whole process is very lengthy,” Salisbury said, adding that the “easiest and the preferable way” in his opinion for the town to move forward  would be for the Selecboard to put the issue on this November’s ballot. 

Gilles asked Salisbury how long a charter process could take, and he estimated that it could stretch into 2020. 

Gilles noted that the town is also in the midst of a comprehensive plan update.

“It just seems like they’re both very large endeavors,” she said. 

Salisbury also spoke at an Aug. 6 meeting about creating a charter that was held at Hathorne’s home. Hathorne said about eight people attended. He called Salisbury a “guru” on the charter issue. 

Selectboard member Joseph Davis tried to add the charter discussion and action on that discussion to the board’s agenda at the beginning of the Aug. 20 meeting, but Chase and Gilles both voted against making the addition. Salisbury and others then spoke about the charter issue during the public comment portion of the meeting. 

Chase indicated that there was a previous effort to get the charter discussion on the agenda before it was finalized last week, but said Town Manager Carrie Castonguay has more research to do on the subject.

Gilles noted that Davis had asked at the last Selectboard meeting that items not be added the night of a meeting to make sure residents have an opportunity to weigh in on a topic. Davis responded that since his suggestion was not ultimately adopted, he decided to try and add the charter discussion to the agenda Monday night. 

“I just think that with the stuff that we already have on the agenda, that it would be best in September to have any action taken,” Gilles said.

Hathorne said after the meeting Monday night that he’s confident the group can collect the necessary petition signatures if the Selectboard decides not to move forward on the charter issue. State statute requires a charter petition to be signed by 20 percent of the number of town residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election. 

“We want you on board with us, we want to work with you, but if you decide you don’t want to work with us, we’re going to go petition, and we’re going to force your hand,” Hathorne told the Selectboard. “And that’s not what we want to do, but that’s what it boils down to.”

He said after the meeting that his group will bewaiting to see what happens at the next Selectboard meeting, scheduled for Sept. 17.

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@keepmecurrent.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

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