Questions raised about proposal to end Scarborough pesticide ban

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SCARBOROUGH — After some behind-the-scenes maneuvering leading up to Wednesday’s Town Council meeting, one thing is clear: a ban on applying synthetic pesticides to town property is anything but settled.

Supporters of the ban, and their lawyer, claimed there was wrongdoing in the way a proposal to repeal the policy was brought before the council. That proposal was ultimately tabled, but questions remain about what comes next.

The March 21 agenda originally included a proposal sponsored by Councilor Richard Sullivan to repeal the town’s organic pest management policy, which the council approved last September. It would have replaced it with an “integrated” approach that would strike the organic mandate from the policy and do away with the Pest Management Advisory Committee.

Sullivan, a professional landscaper and the lone dissenter in the 4-1 decision to adopt the organic policy last year, said the natural approach is more expensive and less effective. He also said that when used appropriately, synthetic pesticides don’t have any health consequences.

“I’ve been in the business 31 years and even when I used to farm, we tried organics and it failed miserably,” he said on March 19.

Councilor Karen D’Andrea and Planning Board Member Kerry Corthell opposed Sullivan’s plan and sent emails to residents advising them it would be up for discussion. Eventually, word reached members of Citizens for a Green Scarborough, a loosely organized coalition of residents opposed to synthetic pesticides that helped craft the organics policy.

Susan DeWitt Wilder, a CGS member, said “hundreds” of emails were sent urging residents to contact Town Councilors or show up at the meeting to voice their opposition. 

“We spent a year working on this policy,” Wilder said. “Now, with no public involvement, this was going to come up for a discussion and a vote.”

Because it is only an internal policy, a revision on pest management would not require a first and second reading, or a public hearing. One vote would be enough to revise – or repeal – the policy.

Wilder said Sullivan’s concerns about cost and efficacy are unfounded, but it wouldn’t matter even if it were more costly to run an organic program.

“If you embark on an organic pest management approach, you’re doing it for the good of the public health,” she said. “To embark on something and say you’ll go back on it later on, I don’t think that’s a good message to the townspeople.”

Elizabeth Peoples, a Scarborough attorney and organic farmer working with CGS, contacted Council Chairman Ron Ahlquist and Town Manager Tom Hall to raise questions about whether the town’s rules were followed in bringing Sullivan’s proposal to the council. 

At some point on March 20, Ahlquist removed Sullivan’s proposal from the agenda. 

Citizens for a Green Scarborough claimed victory, saying the outcry of its members forced the council’s hand. Ahlquist said he removed the proposal because there wasn’t enough time for it on Wednesday’s agenda.

The council chairman also said the involvement of a lawyer had nothing to do with his decision. If anything, being contacted by an attorney would have steeled his resolve, he said.

“I’m not intimidated by that sort of thing,” he said Wednesday. 

Peoples wouldn’t say exactly which policies the council could have violated by taking up Sullivan’s proposal, but said that rules governing “reconsideration” were among those broken.

One of the Town Council’s rules for reconsideration states that “only those council members who voted in the majority can sponsor an item for reconsideration.”

Ahlquist said Wednesday that the town also consulted an attorney. Even though Sullivan was in the minority on the original vote, Ahlquist said the rules were followed. 

When pressed for an explanation, Ahlquist said only that “we’re very confident we followed the rules.”

Despite the dispute surrounding Sullivan’s proposal, people on both sides said they are willing to negotiate an agreement.

Both policies, the organic and the integrated, make room for the other approach: The existing policy allows use of synthetic pesticides on an emergency basis, and Sullivan said his proposal would have the town “use organics when they make sense.”

“I was asked to sit down with the organics side, with their attorney, to discuss the issue and hey, I’m willing to do that,” he said Wednesday.

Peoples, the pro-organics attorney, said that without compromising the goal of an organic-first policy, she’s also hopeful that a compromise can be reached.

“We all have the same goal in mind,” she said. “Even Councilor Sullivan’s revised policy would have room to implement organic policies and products first and foremost. We’re all willing to get together toward that goal.”

Hall, who is ultimately responsible for town property management, said he and his staff prefer an organic approach, but understand there may be limitations.

“The way I view the revised policy, and it remains to be seen if it gets passed, is that it has the same intent (as the current policy),” he said. 

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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