Brunswick council rejects petition for Mere Point referendum

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council voted 7-2 Monday against sending a petition to referendum to create a park at 946 Mere Point Road.

Councilors stood by their September 2016 decision to sell the coastal property.

When the petition – which attracted more than 1,100 signatures – was issued in November, the town’s attorney said it lacked a legal basis in the Town Charter and the council was not required to respond.

The petitioners disagreed then, and still do; they met Wednesday to discuss bringing a lawsuit against the town.

Since the September vote – which generated a political storm around what to do with the tax-acquired property, said to be valued at around $250,000 – the town has spoken to brokers about selling the land, Town Manager John Eldridge said. 

Because it was after 10 p.m. Monday , the council tabled a vote on whether to create an easement for clammers on the property, along with access to a grave site. 

Sockna Dice, who spoke on behalf of petitioners Monday, argued on behalf of creating a public park and the petition’s legality.

“We followed the language in the Town Charter,” Dice said, citing a charter section that describes police power ordinances, a set of legislative rules or procedures that are enacted to benefit the public.

Dice said she felt a lack of respect from the council’s, since the town clerk’s office issued the official petitions.

Town attorney Stephen Langsdorf responded with respectful incredulity, noting petitions were issued alongside a memo that warned of their dubious legality. 

He repeated his opinion that no legal mechanism exists in the charter to reverse an executive order – a one-time act of the council, such as their decision to sell the land.

There is a way to challenge an ordinance, he said, but even that process falls within a mandated 20-day window, which has long since passed.

On Tuesday, Dice, a lawyer but unfamiliar with municipal law, stood by her claim that Langsdorf’s interpretation of the charter was narrow. She said Tuesday that the group tried to find an attorney who would defend the petition for free, but couldn’t.

“Now, we have a different legal question, which is, ‘should we file a lawsuit,'” she said.

Dice said she wasn’t surprised councilors voted as they did; rather, she was frustrated with the charter’s limited avenues for citizen initiatives.

“The charter says, ‘citizens may petition their government,'” she said. “It seems to me that (the council is) taking a provision in the charter that encourages citizen involvement and they’re trying to narrowly define it out of existence.”

When asked whether the group would call on the town to amend the charter, Dice said Tuesday, “I don’t think there’s an appetite to do it, and I think it would cause so much haggling that it would take forever.”

On Monday, Langsdorf hesitated to call Brunswick’s charter especially restrictive; he said it would be hard for him to draw standard comparisons between documents that are written and adopted by individual towns.

However, he said it is standard to have a limited window of time to challenge a governmental decision, no matter how broadly the petition process is defined.

Only Councilors Sarah Brayman and Steve Walker voted to send the petition to referendum – not because they felt legally obligated, they said, but because they believed voters should make the decision.

“We had 1,1000-plus people sign this, saying, ‘hey guys, why don’t you take some time to think through this, because a lot of what your decisions were based on don’t mesh with the reality of what citizens in this town want,” said Walker, who, in September supported making the property a park. 

“We’re not going to have another opportunity like this. Let’s put aside the legal binding, let’s put aside the charter – let’s do the right thing,” he said.

Councilor Suzan Wilson, who voted in September to sell the property, didn’t see why the council should reconsider the issue.

“There were many opportunities for these discussions to be had, these arguments to be made; and, as I said at the time, they all had merit,” she said.

Brayman countered, arguing that “we do have the political opportunity to reconsider” in light of the “citizen-driven issue to vote again on an issue that, to me, is a key issue.”

She urged fellow councilors not to let council rules and conventions take precedence over what she felt were the town’s long-term goals.

“I wanted to look at ‘what are my long-term values, and my long-term values are water access,” she said. 

But the majority of councilors stood by the September decision, including Councilors Jane Millet and Dan Harris, who originally supported the park. 

Harris said “it would be detrimental to representative government as defined by the charter” to allow the petition to move forward.

He said the council is charged with making decisions on behalf of the public, and on the matter at hand, “it has spoken.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Sockna Dice, surrounded by fellow petitioners, defends the legality of a petition Monday that asked the Brunswick Town Council to reverse a September executive order to sell property at 946 Mere Point Road. The town’s attorney advised the council it was not required to give a formal response and, in a 7-2 vote, the council stood by its original decision.

On Election Day 2016, Brunswick residents collected more than 1,100 signatures on a petition that would reverse the Town Council’s decision to sell town-acquired land at 946 Mere Point Road.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.
  • farmertom2

    Boo, hiss. A referendum would be okay– or changing their decision to sell the land. This is not okay.

  • Chew H Bird

    While I am firmly against a park on this particular piece of property, if 1000 plus people want it to go to a vote, it should go to a vote. While this property is clearly not suitable for another off the tax roles area that needs taxpayer resources to be maintained, if a thousand people think it is a good idea we (the people) should be able to vote on it. While the town “fathers” may be legally in the right, it is symptomatic (and normal) for the Town Counsel to ignore the pleadings of the taxpayers of Brunswick, (unless they are an organized special interest group with an ongoing (not one issue) agenda).