Harpswell board rejects petition to preserve water tower

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HARPSWELL — The Board of Selectmen Wednesday rejected a citizen petition seeking to reverse a recent Town Meeting vote to demolish the Mitchell Field water tower. 

Selectmen voted 2-1 May 2 to reject the petition, with Selectman David Chipman opposed.

The vote followed a lengthy public comment period, comments from Town Attorney Amy Tchao, and a discussion on whether Chipman’s involvement was a conflict of interest. 

The petition, submitted to the town by local nonprofit Friends of Mitchell Field, asked for voters to have an opportunity to repeal the demolition decision in a future election. It also asked that voters be allowed to authorize selectmen to enter into a five-year agreement with the Friends’ group to lease the tower.

“Of the 435 signatures submitted, 351 were found to be valid, fulfilling the 307 (signature) requirement,” Town Clerk Rosalind Knight said of the document, which was submitted to the town April 26.

Conflict of interest

Wednesday’s meeting began with the board discussing Chipman’s role as a petitioner.

Chairman Rick Daniel said ahead of Town Meeting March 10 that Chipman discussed the potential of a conflict of interest – though no money was involved – and allowed his fellow selectmen to decide whether it was a valid concern.

“It was never brought up again, I was OK with that and the way things were going to Town Meeting,” Daniel said. 

Daniel went on to say, however, that since the Selectmen’s April 19 meeting, when the issue of Chipman’s bias was also raised, town staff became aware of his work as a “petitioner.”

“I am a petitioner in that I signed one of the petitions,” Chipman said. “And I witnessed 94 signatures.”

Chipman also circulated a petition in 2015 to save the tower. It garnered 120 signatures and led selectmen not to put the water tower issue on the 2015 Town Meeting warrant. In addition, he spoke at the 2018 Town Meeting in support of saving the tower.

Tchao also questioned Chipman May 2 on his involvement in Friends of Mitchell Field. He said he was an adviser for the group.

Tchao outlined the types of conflicts of interest that would constitute grounds for recusal, including financial interest, and a less-direct statute stating officials should not appear to have a conflict of interest or self interest with a government issue.

“I don’t think having a difference of opinion is a conflict of interest,” Chipman said. “If that was the case, we wouldn’t be able to discuss anything.”

Johnson ultimately said he saw no reason for Chipman to recuse himself, telling him to “stay put.” Daniel agreed.

Water tower

Robert McIntyre, a spokesperson for Friends of Mitchell Field, began the discussion on the petition by outlining his organization’s reason for wanting to save the tower, including better cellular phone reception in town.

McIntyre also said residents did not have all the information available about Friends of Mitchell Field or the tower when they voted. For instance, he said, neither the organization’s name nor its proposal was mentioned at Town Meeting.

McIntyre also said town staff did not tell voters the Water Tower Task Force had unanimously recommended having a nonprofit lease the tower, and also said his group’s informational materials were not able to be placed on the table set aside for town documents. Information provided by the group was set on a different display table.

“Town Meeting did not vote on our proposal, they voted on rumors and misinformation without access to the facts,” he said. “So on that basis it seems reasonable to request there be a re-vote.”

Tchao outlined the selectmen’s options in moving forward ahead of the vote, saying there are exceptions to the statute that states selectmen “shall” place an item on a secret ballot if the town receives a citizen petition with a minimum of 307 signatures.

One exception in case law, she said, gives the board the discretion to “reasonably refuse” to put a petition on the ballot when the purpose is to reconsider a vote that has already been taken.

Other cases have dealt with the question of what “reasonable” refusal is, Tchao said.

“In the instance of a minority view voter that didn’t like like the answer, put to the voters, voted on by the voters, the purpose of the citizens’ petition is not to allow the will of the voters to be upset simply by the filing of a petition,” she said.

Tchao went on to say if the petition was rejected, petitioners could “take the next step” of seeking a special Town Meeting. The Board of Selectmen would then likely need to go to court to ask for a “declaratory judgment” to prevent the special Town Meeting from going forward.

Several residents spoke both for and against board rejecting the petition. 

Jane Covey, who has been a member of the Mitchell Field Committee for roughly six years, said the process of considering the water tower issue had been “long” and “deliberative” with the best information the town had at the time of Town Meeting.

“I think we are in the category of a group of people who heard no but do not want it to be ‘no,’ continuing to bring to the town an issue that has been vetted for six years,” she said. “So I would, personally, suggest that the board decline to take it forward.”

Later in the meeting, McIntyre hinted at potential future litigation on the issue, saying “I have lawyers lined up.”

Before the selectmen voted, Tchao asked them to cite their reasons for rejecting the petition, and also questioned town staff about Town Meeting.

When Tchao asked Knight if she prevented Friends of Mitchell Field from disseminating their materials at Town Meeting, Knight replied, “Absolutely not.” 

Ahead of the vote to reject the petition, Chipman made a motion for the selectmen to accept it and put the issue on the ballot in November election, which failed.

Johnson said the town had “always” upheld the vote of Town Meeting, and he wanted to as well.

“I think the fact that it was voted on at Town Meeting, and they’re trying to change the vote at Town Meeting, I’m against it,” he said.

Before both votes, Daniel said he thought discussion of the issue had been “a good give and take.”

“I simply want the discussion to continue as it has and to take a vote,” he said. “How and what people perceive that as being is all within their own self.”

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

Dorothy Rosenberg, a member of the Harpswell nonprofit Friends of Mitchell Field, addresses the selectmen, Town Administrator Kristi Eiane and Town Attorney Amy Tchao at a special meeting May 2. The board voted 2-1 to reject a petition asking for a repeal of a Town Meeting vote to demolish a local water tower.

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