Peaks Island secession poll raises questions

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PORTLAND — About 60 percent of Peaks Island residents who participated in a straw poll on Saturday supported launching another effort to secede from the city.

But there are questions about the validity of the survey.

Peaks Island Councilor Sid Gerard said registered voters voted 122-80 to secede from the city. Fifty-eight cast their votes online (32 opposed and 26 in favor), while 144 voted in person at the MacVane Community Center (96-48 in favor).

The vote came after a two-hour discussion, Gerard said, that brought out passionate opposition from some islanders.

At the center of the debate, according to Gerard, a secession supporter, is the future of the island school.

Secession proponents argued the school would have a better chance of staying open if the island governed itself, he said, while opponents believed the opposite to be true.

Meanwhile, even some islanders who supported secession called for a more formal vote of residents and wanted the process to slow down.

Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland, said he and Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York, would co-sponsor any attempt by islanders to separate from the city.

But Stuckey said he is looking into whether the informal straw poll would meet the statutory requirements for secession.

“I’m supportive of what the island community wants to do,” he said. “I believe the straw poll they had Saturday was an indication, but I don’t think it’s what they need to proceed.

“I think it needs to be a much more formal vote,” he added. “But that’s what I’m trying to get squared away. I’m not clear in my own mind about it.”

A secession bill would have to be submitted to the Legislature by Jan. 7.

Under state law, islanders need to submit to municipal officers a petition signed by more than 50 percent of registered voters on the island to initiate the process.

As of Nov. 23, City Clerk Linda Cohen said, there were 861 registered voters on the island.

According to the Island Institute, more than 850 people live on Peaks Island during the winter, while up to 5,000 live there during the summer.

Islanders must also call a public hearing on secession, allowing residents and non-residents to speak. An advisory referendum would then have to be held within 120 days of the hearing.

The secession effort would have to clear a series of legislative hurdles.

Gerard said he hopes the group will be able to used a previous effort as a jumping-off point.

“I just don’t see the need to go back to the city,” he said. “We have exhausted everything.”

While some secessionists hope to pick up where the last secession effort left off, Stuckey said the group may have to start over, since the measure was voted down by the House in the 123rd Legislature.

“I think they have to go back to square one,” Stuckey said. “But that’s what I’m trying to find out.”

Gerard said he is pushing ahead with the secession effort, along with seven other islanders, many of whom served on the previous Island Independence Council. They include Gerard’s wife, Jane; Frank and Peggy Peretti; Russ Edwards; Suellen Roberts; Howard Pedlikan and Judy Piawlock.

The group has also reached out to residents on Ram and House islands to see if they’re interested in joining the secession movement, Gerard said.

Peaks Island Council Chairman Eric Eaton said the council did not vote last week on whether to support the secession effort. Eaton said he is seeking clarity about the secession process being pursued by the proponents, who he hopes will formally organize so residents know where to get information.

“This issue should be handled with sensitivity for both sides,” said Eaton, who supported the 2007 secession effort. “I literally do not grasp the nuances of the track its on now.”

Peaks Island resident Jean Hoffman, who opposes secession, said she boycotted Saturday’s vote because she could not get information about its sponsors.

Hoffman called the hastily arranged poll “a travesty” that may prompt local and state leaders to view islanders as “a joke.”

“I worry it will result in us getting less attention to the very real needs of the island,” she said.

But Gerard said the vote was indication that the islanders, if anything, are more interested in secession now than they were in 2007.

“It’s a pretty good sample of what’s going on,” he said of the independence group. “Our plan is to start meeting soon to get things together.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]