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Freeport faces rights complaint as deadline looms for dispatch petition

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Freeport faces rights complaint as deadline looms for dispatch petition

FREEPORT — A campaign that would force a referendum on whether to keep emergency dispatch service in town is about 200 names shy of the required signatures with a week left in the petition process.

Town Clerk Beverly Curry said 417 people had signed the petition as of Tuesday, May 18. But 626 signatures are needed by 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 26.

When the Town Council voted on April 6 to consolidate emergency dispatch services with Brunswick's communication center, a group of residents filed the petition to overturn their decision and keep dispatch local. Councilors Joe Migliaccio and Eric Pandora voted against the decision to move dispatch to Brunswick.

Under the Town Charter, a petition to overturn a council decision has to be signed in the presence of the town clerk or deputy clerk at the clerk's office. That effectively prevents residents who are housebound or cannot get to Town Hall from signing.

Marianne McGettigan, a Freeport resident who served as a special assistant to President George H. W. Bush to help pass the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1989, said the charter doesn't provide accommodations for citizens with disabilities. She has filed a complaint against the town with the Maine Human Rights Commission, and as someone with multiple sclerosis, said she would like the town to have an accommodation policy for the disabled in the petition process.

"This limits citizens and puts up a barrier for participation in town affairs," she said. "While the Town Hall has ramps and doors wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, there are other disabilities that make it difficult to get to Town Hall."

The MHRC doesn't comment on pending complaints until after there has been an investigation and the complaint reaches a commission agenda.

Although McGettigan said she would like to see the citizen petition overturn the council decision, it would only be a one-year fix, she said.

"Dispatch is a part of the fundamental character of Freeport," she said. "It is up to the people to decide what they want. I want to see that this problem is solved once and for all."

As a way to ensure that dispatch services remain in Freeport, McGettigan said there is another petition that will soon circulate. This petition would amend the Town Charter to prohibit the town from contracting with another entity for dispatch service, and would create a new section of the charter requiring dispatch to be based in town 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The petition language is based on an ordinance proposed by Pandora.

"The charter change would clear up the dispatch problem, but having to go through Town Hall for any referendum process is still a problem," McGettigan said. "It is a burden to many residents unless it is corrected."

Town Manager Dale Olmstead said consolidation with Brunswick is on hold until the petition process ends on May 26. If the petition fails to gather enough signatures to move the dispatch debate to a referendum, Olmstead said the terms agreed to by both towns could be converted into a contract very soon.

"As soon as the petition ends, if it is not successful, we can move forward," he said. "Once the contract is signed, which I assume would be fairly soon because the terms have already been agreed upon, I would anticipate we would be consolidated as early as Aug. 1."

According to Abigail Yacoben, Freeport's financial director, closing the dispatch center would save the town about $80,000. Yacoben said keeping dispatch in Freeport would add about $13 to the annual property tax bill for the owner of a home valued at $200,000.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net