High court rules for town in lawsuit over Freeport emergency dispatch change

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FREEPORT — Almost two years after town councilors voted to outsource emergency dispatching services to Brunswick, Maine’s highest court has upheld the methods used to shift services.

In a unanimous decision filed last Thursday, Maine Supreme Judicial Court justices said councilors did not violate the Town Charter by first approving a 2010 contract and then enacting an ordinance to support the contract.

The decision supported an argument by plaintiffs Marianne McGettigan and Donald Rice that the matter was not moot because the contract had already been approved. But it rejected their request to void the contract because of charter violations.

Justices ordered the case back to Cumberland County Superior Court for a judgment upholding the six-year contract signed by Town Manager Dale Olmstead Jr. on June 27, 2010.

The decision culminates a two-year fight against outsourcing town emergency dispatch services to Brunswick in a contract extending to June 30, 2016. The contract went into effect July 1, 2010.

The contract called for a one-time $122,500 capital payment and a base annual rate of $120,000 for dispatch services. The annual fee will be increased by 3 percent or the increase in the Consumer Price Index maintained by the U.S. Department of Labor, a choice left to Freeport officials each year.

McGettian and Rice frist took their case to Superior Court, where Justice Nancy Mills decided in favor of the town on March 29, 2011. 

Mills also decided a third plaintiff, Judith Blanchard, lacked the legal standing to sue town officials. Blanchard did not join in the appeal of Mills’ decision heard in December by the law court.

The Superior Court suit by McGettigan, Rice and Blanchard sought to void the contract on grounds it violated Town Charter section 6.10, which requires multiyear municipal contracts be “made or approved by ordinance.” Councilors approved shifting dispatch operations in April 2010, and subsequently passed an ordinance supporting the contract in October 2010.

In a counterclaim to the Superior Court suit filed in October 2010, town officials said the matter was moot because the contract was approved and the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to file suit against the town.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled against the town argument that McGettigan and Rice lacked legal standing. The decision, written by Justice Andrew M. Mead, noted McGettigan and Rice are Freeport taxpayers who have relied on town emergency services in the past.

The residents argued that merging dispatch services could be detrimental, especially for a local program where dispatchers contact some residents each morning and send emergency services if no contact is made.

Justices also decided the case was not made moot by approval of the contract, because the question of whether the contract followed charter provisions remained open to question, and the contract remains in effect.

But ultimately, the justices decided the complaint by McGettigan and Rice lacked merit.

“The passage of the October 7, 2010, ordinance was in conformance with section 6.10 of the charter,” according to the court.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow David on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.