Fight continues in Harpswell over plan to demolish Mitchell Field water tower

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HARPSWELL — A local nonprofit that last month called for a special Town Meeting to reconsider a decision to demolish the Mitchell Field water tower is pushing back against the town’s determination such a meeting would be invalid.

The resistance comes after the Board of Selectmen on June 28 rejected the proposed warrant for the meeting, on the advice of town attorney Amy Tchao.

At the same meeting, selectmen unanimously voted to hire Iseler Demolition to tear down the tower. The annual Town Meeting on March 10 approved the demolition, at a cost of up to $40,000 from the Mitchell Field capital reserve fund.

Robert McIntyre, a member of Friends of Mitchell Field, sent a letter to selectmen and Town Administrator Kristi Eiane July 1, arguing that points Tchao made about the validity of the special Town Meeting were incorrect.

On July 3, McIntyre said the Friends group agreed the letter would be sent as a “unanimous” opinion of the group.

One of the issues Tchao raised about the warrant’s legitimacy dealt with the date it was presented to the town clerk and selectmen: June 14.

The warrant calls for the special Town Meeting to be held Aug. 11, which, the attorney said, does not meet the requirement of being scheduled “more than 60 days” after the warrant was presented.

In his letter, McIntyre cited the Maine law under which the group’s warrant was presented, and said a special Town Meeting can be held “within 60 days” of the date it is called.

Tchao also said June 28 that statutes pertaining to asking a notary public to hold a Town Meeting on a voters’ petition when selectmen “unreasonably” refuse to do so state the petition needs to be directed to the notary public.

“What we have here is a petition that was directed to the municipal officers,” she said.

McIntyre also touched on this assertion in his letter, citing another law that he said “specifies a notification process that involves no role for the town clerk.”

“These provisions of Maine Law specifically aim to secure a pathway around a Select Board that refuses to entertain a valid petition,” he wrote.

Ultimately, Tchao said, a court could decide if the selectmen’s refusal was unreasonable under the law.

She added she also thought there had been some “confusion” about who would be responsible for holding the election if the warrant had been deemed valid.

Friends of Mitchell Field last month said costs associated with holding the meeting would be borne by the group. However, Tchao said she thought “the statutes are very clear that it is the town’s responsibility to hold the election,” and that it is the town clerk’s responsibility to ensure the election occurred in keeping with state law.

“The statutes are really quite clear that, for example, it’s the selectmen who will appoint the necessary number of ballot clerks, it’s the clerk who will open the sealed package or box of ballots,” Tchao said. “It’s the town clerk who issues absentee ballots, all those kinds of requirements that are in the statute still apply in this situation.”

If so, Tchao said, the town is in “a situation that any meeting that is called by a group and vote held by a group that is not done under the town auspices and under the direction of the town clerk” would be “invalid and illegal.”

She also reiterated an opinion expressed at the board’s May meeting, that based on case law, the selectmen’s refusal to put the Friends of Mitchell Field petition before the voters was not unreasonable.

McIntyre also referred to this statement in his letter.

“As stated by the Town Attorney in closing, only the decision of a court can determine whether a valid petition was rejected by the select board reasonably or unreasonably,” he wrote. “Thus, her repeated assertions that actions taken or not taken by the Friends group rendered the Warrant ‘illegal’ are without any foundation in the law.”

The Friends of Mitchell Field was the only entity to respond to the town’s February invitation to submit proposals for reuse of the tower, which engineering reports have said needs significant repairs. The group’s hope is that the tower can be used to improve cellular phone service in town.

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

Harpswell has selected a contractor to demolish the Mitchell Field water tower, but a local nonprofit group still hopes to prevent the action.

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