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Harpswell responds to criticism with referendum guide

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Harpswell responds to criticism with referendum guide

HARPSWELL — The town issued a bulletin Tuesday about this year's only local referendum, after a former selectman last week said selectmen had not provided enough information to fully inform the electorate.

The Nov. 6 referendum question asks if voters want to change hiring of the town treasurer from an elected position to one appointed by the Board of Selectmen – a measure proposed and recommended by the selectmen.

In an Oct. 18 public hearing, Selectman Jim Henderson said one of the main reasons for the proposed change is to prevent the town from electing an under-qualified treasurer, since state law only requires candidates to be 18 years old, Maine residents and U.S. citizens.

But former Selectman Gordon Weil said the board's reasoning, which is available on the town's website, didn't do enough to explain the greater implications of the proposed change.

He said the proposal raises important questions about the treasurer's independence, the position's relationship to the town administrator, conditions and requirements for the treasurer's removal, and the impact on the budget.

"It seems to me that in answer to my questions, you haven't thought of them all the way through," Weil said.

Supported by the concerns of two other residents, he said matters like this are historically decided at the annual Town Meeting in March.

"I think what's wrong with doing it, in this vote at this time,  is that it goes before the largest electorate the town has at the time of the presidential election," the former selectman said. "A vast majority of those people voting, I daresay and from experience, don't follow town affairs closely."

But since it's too late to move the referendum from the November ballot to next year's Town Meeting, Weil urged the Board of Selectmen to issue a bulletin addressing the implications of changing the hiring procedure.

"It's inadequate and unsatisfactory, but you have time fo fix it," Weil said.

And Tuesday, the town did just that.

The bulletin sent via e-mail and made available on the town's website outlines the reasons for the referendum, contains answers to questions submitted by residents, and includes the history of the town treasurer position.

The town also plans to mail the bulletin to residents this weekend.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said she compiled the information, which came from sources including the town website and archived documents, after Weil addressed

The bulletin notes that debates about the hiring of the treasurer went back to March 2002, when the town voted in a secret ballot against changing the position to an appointed one. Voters also rejected a similar proposal at the March 2006 Town Meeting.

In 2008, the town's Governance Committee released a report about the pros and cons of an appointed treasurer as part of that year's Annual Town Report.

The 4-year-old report said reasons for an elected treasurer include the oversight provided, and the electorate's ability to remove the treasure through a recall vote. The report also said an appointed treasurer would likely require a "significantly larger salary."

Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Elinor Multer said they might make a pay increase for the treasurer, but not "significantly larger."

"We are not turning it into a full-time position, but we think there might be a modest increase," Multer said during the public hearing. "My opinion is that we have a lot more talent than is being paid for. I don't think there would be a significant budgetary impact."

The bulletin issued Tuesday said an appointed treasurer's salary could double, from the current $10,000 to $15,000-$20,000, and will be considered by Town Meeting in 2013.

In arguments supporting an appointed treasurer, the report echoed the Board of Selectman's reasoning that it would ensure the town hires a qualified candidate. The hired candidate would also come from a larger pool of applicants, since the town would have to advertise for the position, the bulletin said. 

At the end of the bulletin, the town addressed various questions submitted by residents.

It said that the treasurer's responsibilities will remain the same, whether the position is elected or appointed.

It also addressed terms for terminating the treasurer: "An appointed treasurer could only be removed for cause, such as not performing his/her duties or illegal acts," according to the document.

Near the end of the referendum's public hearing, Town Treasurer Marguerite Kelly stood up to make it clear she is not promoting the referendum.

"I had nothing to do with this. And I was surprised as anyone that this was an objective of the board for this year," Kelly said. "... It's a tricky position to be in."

Selectmen said they have been fortunate to work with Kelly.

"She has a lot of expertise and she gives us a lot of opinions," Hawkes said. "When the auditors come, we get compliments for how well the bookkeeping is done."

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.