SCARBOROUGH — Absentee ballots received by Wednesday morning show more than half the required votes have been submitted to validate a Dec. 3 referendum on the town-wide leash law.
Town Clerk Tody Justice said 1,260 absentee ballots have been returned. A total of 2,379 votes must be cast to make the referendum official. Overturning the Town Council’s Oct. 2 decision requires at least 25 percent of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.
The referendum asks “Shall the amendments to ‘Chapter 604 – Animal Control Ordinance adopted by the Town Council on October 2, 2013’ be approved?”
A vote to repeal the law and return to the previous ordinance requires voting “no” on the question, while a “yes” vote will uphold the amended law. An explanation is not part of the ballot; it is posted instead in the clerk’s office and outside Council Chambers, where voting will take place Tuesday.
Polls will be open at Town Hall, 259 U.S. Route 1, from 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
Making the math and language work is but one of the challenges for Lucky Lane resident Katy Foley, who heads Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough, known better as DOGS, the political action committee dedicated to repealing the leash law.
“Overall, I would say it has been very positive, but getting those people to the polls is a whole other issue,” Foley said Monday.
Town Council Chairman Richard Sullivan Jr., who was chairman of the council Ordinance Committee that sought stricter regulation of dogs on town beaches before expanding the leash law throughout town, is also working to get support for keeping the law intact and creating designated areas for unleashed dogs to run and play.
Making his first remarks as chairman at the end of a Nov. 16 council meeting, Sullivan said the new law is fair and justified because of the emails, letters and comments he has received.
In an email Monday, Sullivan asked voters to give the law more time, so councilors can create designated areas for dogs.
“Voters should be aware that the Ordinance Committee still has work to complete the process of designating spaces for off-leash use, including our beaches, and the Town Council has already set in motion plans to promptly complete that work,” Sullivan said.
Foley said signs posted in town asking voters to reject spending on dog parks were not created by DOGS, although she does believe maintaining dog parks will require funding.
“Dog parks require more than just mowing some grass,” she said. “They need fresh water, trash and (waste) receptacles, parking, fences, plowing in the winter.”
Foley said she has had help from about 300 volunteers. The DOGS website reports more than $11,000 in donations in just under two months.
The DOGS contributions are also approaching the amount of a proposed U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service $12,000 fine that could come back into play if the leash law is repealed and the agency concludes the town lacks adequate protection on town beaches for endangered species, including the piping plover.
The fine was proposed about two weeks before the council’s 5-2 vote for the leash law. It was levied after an agency investigation into the death of a piping plover July 15 on Pine Point Beach.
The investigation by Maine Game Wardens established the bird was killed around 7 a.m. near the waterline by a dog allowed to be off leash. The dog’s owner cooperated with the investigation and was not charged in the incident.
Town Manager Tom Hall then negotiated a consent agreement with the agency, reducing the fine to $500, with stipulations that include an amendment to the ordinance allowing dogs to be off leash on beaches from sunrise to 9 a.m. in summer months, when plovers are present.
The town would also be required to increase education efforts about endangered species on beaches and appointment of a “piping plover coordinator” for at least the next five years.
Hall said Wednesday the consent agreement, approved 4-3 by the council on Oct. 2, has been signed and the $500 has been paid.
Sullivan said Monday the coordinator is already on the Community Services staff.
Foley said she remains unconvinced the Fish & Wildlife Service has the legal right to assess the fine. Appealing through the federal courts could cost as much as $200,000, depending how far the appeal is taken, Hall said last month.
The agreement also allows Fish & Wildlife officials to reopen the agreement over the next five years.
Sullivan also called for a 6 p.m. council workshop on Wednesday, Dec. 4, to discuss the referendum outcome and future steps, no matter how the vote goes. Foley said she would prefer a later date for the workshop.
“No matter which way this goes, emotions are running high all over town and it would be good to take a collective breath and pause,” she said.
Foley said she and Sullivan would meet this week to discuss the workshop and when it should be held.