Brunswick residents sue to compel vote on Mere Point park

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BRUNSWICK — A group of residents is suing the town after unsuccessfully petitioning the Town Council to create a park at 946 Mere Point Road.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland claims councilors failed to follow the Town Charter, which obligates them to send the decision to referendum.

The council voted 7-2 to dismiss the petition Feb. 6, with many councilors citing the town attorney’s opinion that petitioners failed to follow a legal mechanism in the charter.

The lawsuit surprised councilors, who were unaware of it before petitioner Robert Baskett notified them during the public comment period of the Feb. 21 council meeting. Baskett also handed Town Manager John Eldridge a copy of the lawsuit. 

The news, however, did not stop the council from authorizing terms of the sale of the property, which they voted 5-4 to sell last September.

Attorney David Lourie filed the complaint on behalf of the nonprofit Brunswick Citizens for Collaborative Government.

Petitioner Sockna Dice on Wednesday said the group raised funds for initial legal fees in one day last week.

“Now we feel it’s not just an issue of the park, but the council stonewalling citizen input,” she said.

The court filing argues the petition followed a legal path defined in the charter, and that a decision for or against a park satisfies the definition of a “police power” ordinance. Therefore, it argues, the council had a legal obligation to enact the ordinance or send it to referendum.

The complaint also alleges council prejudice against the petition.

“The majority of the Town Council was prejudiced against the proposed ordinance, taking offense at the effort to effectively overrule the Town Council’s order to sell the Mere Point property, although the Town Council never considered or voted on any motion to make the property at 946 Mere Point Road a park,” the filing states.

Town attorney Stephen Langsdorf disagreed with the record of events and the argument.

After reviewing the filing Wednesday, Langsdorf said the content omits “essential facts” and parts of the record, and “doesn’t highlight the provisions of the charter” that lack a channel for citizen petitions to overturn council executive actions.

It does not mention, for example, that the petitions were issued with a warning from Langsdorf that the council would not be legally obligated to respond.

“That’s an important fact that they did not identify,” he said.

The record matters, Langsdorf said, because a judge will ultimately review the history to determine whether the council acted improperly.

Neither Council Chairwoman Alison Harris nor Town Manager John Eldridge said they could respond to the petition Tuesday, and were openly perplexed as to why they were not notified in advance of the meeting.

“I’m not surprised by the substance, I’m surprised by how they went about it,” Harris said, referring to the petitioners’ prior threat to pursue legal action.

Dice the group deliberately decided not to tell anyone about the lawsuit until Tuesday’s meeting. She said they were concerned the council would bring its lawyer and create a “proxy court of law” during the meeting.

“We didn’t mean to be disrespectful of the council, we just thought it would be pointless,” she said.

Eldridge, meanwhile, advised councilors that “until there any actions from the court, the council can proceed.”

The lawsuit does not seek to stay council action, although the document requests a stipulation that the town notify any potential buyer of the property that it is the subject of a court case.

Langsdorf said he will object to that stipulation.

“The statute talks about what you do when a case involves title to real estate,” he said. “And there’s nothing about this case that involves a title.”

“There’s nothing about this lawsuit that prevents the Town Council from moving forward with the sale,” he said.

Councilors authorized allowing the town manager to oversee the sale. The council must approve the listing and sale price.

A motion by Councilor Sarah Brayman for the town to retain a 25-foot strip of land on the south side of the property to create access for shellfish harvesters failed 4-4, with Councilor Dan Harris absent.

The council also decided against placing an easement for clammers on the property.

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

A group of residents is suing the town of Brunswick after the Town Council dismissed a petition to turn the property at 946 Mere Point Road, pictured here from the water, into a park.

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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.