Peaks Island secessionists 'bloodied, but unbowed' by failed effort

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PORTLAND — Peaks Island residents who want to secede from Portland were handed a setback last week when a legislative committee unanimously killed a bill that would have put the issue to a vote.

But some secession supporters said they will not give up the fight.

“I would characterize us as bloodied, but unbowed,” said island resident Robert O’Brien. “The Legislature and our opponents wanted us to start over. We will indeed start over.”

O’Brien said it’s unclear who will lead the next effort, but Sid Gerard said it will not be him.

Gerard, who serves on the Peaks Island Council and pro-secession Island Independence Council, said he is stepping aside, not only from the secession effort, but the island council.

“I am resigning,” said Gerard, who was elected along with two other residents in November as a write-in candidate with less than a handful of votes.

The Joint Committee on State and Local Government voted unanimously last Thursday that LD 1079 “ought not to pass,” which effectively prevents the bill from moving forward.

The bill essentially would have allowed proponents to pick up where an unsuccessful secession effort left off in 2007.

The city of Portland would have been required to negotiate the settlement of outstanding debts and divide assets on the island, allowing islanders to develop a provisional budget to operate as an independent town.

Then, the island would have voted on the measure.

Opponents of the bill successfully argued that islanders who want to separate from Portland should have to start the secession process from scratch.

Mayor Nicholas Mavodones, who along with other city officials testified against the bill last week, applauded the committee’s decision.

“Hopefully, the people on the island will work together,” Mavodones said. “Should this come up again, there is a process that needs to be followed.”

Island resident Scott Nash, who helped organize the Peaks Alliance, which opposed the secession process laid out in the bill, said he was proud of the way islanders represented themselves in Augusta.

“Now that the bill is dead, we need to work hard to bring our community back together and begin developing real solutions to the to the challenges we face as an island,” Nash said.

But the secession effort has taken a toll on islanders.

Secession organizers Jane and Sid Gerard said they were subjected to harassment and unfair accusations throughout the process, often by people they have known and respected for many years.

The Gerards said they were passionate about secession because they have seen islanders struggling to make ends meet since property values jumped after a 2004 revaluation, and services have been cut.

Jane Gerard said she is involved in the Peaks Island Tax and Energy Assistance program, which solicits donations from islanders to help other islanders in need.

Gerard said the program was designed as a temporary solution to buy time before the island successfully seceded. Funding often relies on the same benefactors, many of whom are no longer willing or able to donate, she said.

“That’s an issue that is near and dear to our hearts, but it can’t go on forever,” she said. “The coffers are virtually empty.”

Legislators urged islanders to resolve the disagreements between themselves and the city before returning with another secession proposal. Several said there must be unanimity to successfully secede, as there was on Long Island and Chebeague Island.

The main vehicle for that to happen is the Peaks Island Council, which all but dissolved last year over frustration with its inability to influence city leaders. The write-in candidates who were elected last year often joke about their role, and downplay expectations.

PIC member Eric Eaton responded sarcastically to questions about whether he would begin taking his role on the council more seriously to try and get the concerns of island residents addressed by the city of Portland.

“Wait. We were supposed to be advocating on behalf of islanders to the city of Portland?” Eaton said. “That explains why I’ve been getting blank looks (from) the the Falmouth Town Council.”

PIC member Lawrence “Rusty” Foster, who personally supported secession, said he takes his role on the PIC as seriously as can be expected.

“We’ve watched hard-working people burn themselves out banging their heads against the city bureaucracy,” Foster said. “And we would like to avoid becoming the victims of such a terribly mixed metaphor ourselves.”

Foster said he is not optimistic that the state would give a future secession effort a fair hearing, even if 60 percent of islanders vote in favor of it.

“If people want to go ahead and try again, I wish them luck,” Foster he said. “But my feeling is it’s futile.”

O’Brien, however, said the launch of a new secession effort is only a matter of time.

He said he hopes the city, which argued against LD 1079 on the grounds of process, will remember its position in the future. He also blamed the city for stonewalling the previous secession effort in negotiations with a court-appointed mediator.

“What we’ve really be asking for all along is that the city follow the process, too,” O’Brien said. “That’s really the sticking point. There is a certain inherent unfairness in requiring we follow the process and not demanding the city follow the process as well.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

This story was updated on April 20 to clarify that the Peaks Alliance was opposed to the secession process laid out in the bill, not secession itself.