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Falmouth bus backers cry foul over petition to kill service

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Falmouth bus backers cry foul over petition to kill service

FALMOUTH — Residents who support the Falmouth Flyer claim an opponent of the bus service is using questionable tactics to collect petition signatures.

The petition, which would lead to a vote to end the service, is being circulated by resident Michael Doyle, a frequent critic of town government and spending.

METRO service between Portland and Falmouth, which costs the town more than $100,000 a year, began in 2004.  Since then the cost of the service has frequently been a source of contention and there have been repeated attempts to reduce or eliminate the bus. The town's contract with the Greater Portland Transit District was renewed by the Town Council last November.

Doyle's petition, if successful, would force a November referendum that if approved would require Falmouth to end its contract with METRO, effective Dec. 31, 2013. It would prevent the town from providing further financial support to the bus service, except as required to repay its debts.

The language of the petition is not under fire from Doyle's opponents. But they claim there are problems with the way the petition is being promoted.

Residents said the signature collector is providing conflicting descriptions of the intent of the petition.

One Middle Road resident said the man gathering signatures – not Doyle – told her that signing the petition would allow the town of Falmouth to purchase a smaller bus and give the town more control over expenditures.

The resident signed the petition, but later said she would not have signed it had she known its intent was to end the bus service.

“I had absolutely no idea what I was signing because he said sign here and it would help save the bus,” she said.

Winslow Road resident Amy MacDonald said the signature gatherer asked her if she wanted to sign a petition to stop the bus. “I asked, why would I want to do that, I just took the bus this morning,” MacDonald said.

George Burns, spokesman for the Friends of the Falmouth Flyer, a bus advocacy group, said the trouble with the misinformation is that some signers likely would not have given their support if they knew the petition's intent.

“I know a couple of people personally and they're responsible, clear-thinking people and they were among those who signed under a misunderstanding of the intent,” he said. “The implication is pretty strong that they would not have signed if they knew what they were signing.”

Doyle would not identify the signature gatherer or where he lives. He said he did not instruct the man to say the petition would maintain bus service.

“If he is saying it, it's probably a mistake,” Doyle said.

Doyle also refused to discuss whether he is paying the collector for signatures, another point of contention with bus supporters, although the practice is legal.

Town Clerk Ellen Planer said the man collecting signatures is believed to be a Portland resident hired as a subcontractor by Doyle.

Megan Sanborn, of the secretary of state's office, confirmed the legality of the arrangement. “There's no prohibition in the election law that restricts payment to petition circulators,” she said.

Residents also reported that, when asked, the circulator avoided identifying who was paying him to collect signatures.

"I asked him who hired you to do this and he was very evasive," McDonald said. "I asked if it was Doyle and he said 'I don't know, it was somebody in Falmouth government.'"

Other residents said the man told them that Town Councilors Tony Payne, Fred Chase and Faith Varney were sponsoring the petition and that he was being paid by the lawyer who drafted the petition for them.

Payne and Chase both denied involvement with the petition.

Payne said his involvement with the issue ended last fall when the council decided to continue the bus service. Chase said that although Doyle asked for his support, he declined.

“I'm not involved at all," Chase said. "I could see what was coming."

Varney could not be reached for comment.

Doyle has registered for a table at Falmouth High School during the June 12 election to continue gathering signatures. According to Planer, in order to get a referendum on the ballot in November, Doyle must collect 842 signatures before the petition is submitted in October.

Amber Cronin can be reached at acronin@theforecaster.net or by phone at 781-3661 ext. 125. Follow her on Twitter: @croninamber.