Opponents to secession from Portland play catch-up on Peaks Island

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PEAKS ISLAND — Residents opposed to rejuvenated efforts to secede from Portland are gearing up to get in the game. 

But first they have to find the field.

That’s the analogy used by Scott Nash, one of the group of residents concerned about the speed of the re-energized secession effort.

“This process is happening very quickly,” Nash said. “We want to play. We relish having an open debate.”

Nash, a children’s book author and illustrator with offices on the island and in Portland, said many Peaks Island residents are concerned the secession effort appears to be on track to circumvent the process prescribed by state law.

The law requires islanders to submit to municipal officers a petition signed by more than 50 percent of registered voters on the island to initiate the secession process.

Then, after holding a series of public hearings, an advisory referendum would have to be held.

The secession effort would then be taken up by the City Council. If denied, the groups would try to resolve conflicts through mediation. If that fails, the effort would be sent to the Legislature, where it would have to clear more hurdles.

It’s the same process islanders went through in an unsuccessful secession attempt in 2007.

But state Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York, has submitted a bill that would essentially roll back the clock to 2007 and allow Peaks Island to leave the city more quickly. As of Monday, however, Weaver’s legislation had not cleared the revisor’s office.

In recent weeks, the attorney general’s office informed the city in an e-mail that a secession movement may not have to start over and could go around the lengthy statutory process.

Weaver has said that opinion was critical to keeping the effort moving forward. But Nash believes it’s “unconscionable” for secessionists to push their agenda outside of the normal process.

That view is shared by the city of Portland. City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the statute outlines a “thoughtful and purposeful” process so the issue can be fully vetted by the community.

“It is unfortunate that the sponsor of the bill has chosen to circumvent this critical process,” Clegg said in a written statement.

The latest secession effort began in earnest last December, when a group of residents, upset about recent city budget cuts, conducted an informal straw poll about whether islanders still support secession.

Organizers, including a Peaks Island councilor and former members of the Peaks Island Independence Council, said that 60 percent of participants back secession.

But Nash said he and other residents do not believe that poll accurately reflects sentiment on the island. Residents only had a few days notice about the poll and we’re given enough time to educate and organize themselves, he said.

Nash said he believes the island is split evenly about secession, as it was during the 2007 effort.

Lisa Penalver, another organizer of the fledgling anti-secession group that calls itself United Peaks, said many island residents do not know what exactly is being put forward, since the bill has not cleared the revisor’s office.

Penalver accused the Island Independence Council of plotting another secession effort for the last five years, and refusing to deliver a copy of the submitted bill.

“I have a big problem with being railroaded, along with the rest of the island, into a process that is not of my choosing,” she said. “It was an utter violation of community trust to have this measure introduced clandestinely in the way the IIC has done.”

Penalver said she has an e-mail list of about 100 people who are opposed to secession and that the list is “growing by the hour.”

Penalver and Nash said there are many residents who firmly identify themselves with the city and avail themselves of services like the schools and public transportation.

“Portland has done a good job by Peaks, and this sort of upheaval in the community is contrived and unwelcome,” Penalver said.

Nash said it seems as though the goal of the secession effort is to reduce taxes. But he is concerned that taxes may actually increase if the island gains independence, since it will have to repay the city a portion if its existing debt.

Nash said residents who are opposed to secession are planning an organizational meeting sometime this week.

“We have a pick-up team,” he said. “And we’ve had to scramble to do that.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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