AG's opinion boosts effort to split Peaks Island from Portland

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PORTLAND — The Peaks Island secession movement has cleared a significant hurdle in its second attempt to break away from the city.

The attorney general’s office has ruled that proponents do not have to start over from scratch, but can pick up where a failed 2007 secession effort left off.

Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York, is sponsoring the latest secession bill, which as of Tuesday morning had not yet cleared the revisor’s office.

But Weaver said the AG’s ruling essentially keeps the secession movement alive.

“That was a big hurdle,” Weaver said. “If the attorney general said we needed to start over that would have killed the bill. … That was critical.”

Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner informed the city of her department’s ruling in a Jan. 19 e-mail.

Although state statutes require a long, complicated process for secession, Pistner said the Legislature can enact an authorizing bill, outside the statutory process, specifically for Peaks Island.

“I see nothing in the existing statutes that would prohibit Peaks Island residents from making another attempt at secession, whether they take the path already outlined in statute or seek to go around it with new legislation,” Pistner told the city.

The previous attempt at secession died by a 7-5 vote in the Joint Standing Committee on State and Local Government. The vote was split along party lines, with the Democratic majority opposed.

“The fact that this has been proposed before and failed in the Legislature is a relevant point for discussion as a matter of policy, but not a bar as a matter of law, as far as I can find from searching the statutes,” Pistner said.

Weaver, who sat on the committee in 2007, said he sponsored the current bill because he supports allowing the island to chart its own course. He said he is confident the new effort will succeed in the Legislature, given the Republican majority.

If the bill is cleared by both the House and Senate and gets the governor’s approval, Weaver said islanders will have a final vote on secession before the island can become its own municipality.

“It gives them the opportunity to secede if they want to,” Weaver said. “We’re not cramming it down their throats.”

City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who represents Peaks Island, could not immediately be reached on Tuesday for comment. City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said she had to check with city officials before commenting on Tuesday, but did not respond before deadline.

The secession effort was rekindled after recent cuts to police, fire and children’s services, among other issues. It is being spearheaded by the Peaks Island Independence Council, which updated residents on the new legislation on Sunday.

PIIC volunteer Rand Gee has said the group is updating the financial information it will use to prove the viability of the island to the legislative committee.

Previous estimates have suggested the island would generate $5 million in income and carry $3 million in annual operating expenses. Gee has said islanders would build in costs to operate a school, library and other non-essential services.

Members of the elected Peaks Island Council have said they do not plan to vote on the latest secession effort.

Rusty Foster, the current PIC chairman, said he hopes secession is approved by the Legislature and the governor, so residents can have the final say on independence.

“Whether it passes or not, I think it will be really good for us to have an end to the process,” Foster said, “which is really all we wanted last time.”

 Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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