AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on State and Local Government on Wednesday unanimously killed a bill that would have restarted the secession of Peaks Island from Portland.
Legislators said during a half-hour discussion that the secession process outlined by state law was clear, but was not followed in LD 1079.
The vote does not preclude future secession efforts. But committee members urged islanders to work together to resolve their differences and form a clear consensus on secession before returning to the Legislature.
Rep. Bradley S. Moulton, R-York, said islanders should use Chebeague Island’s 2006 secession process as a model, especially when reporting costs and revenues to the committee.
Moulton suggested islanders would need a strong consensus to convince lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to pass any bill that would separate the island from Portland.
“You have to convince one another and that’s not going to be an easy task for you,” Moulton said.
The vote followed a full day of public comment on Monday, where most of the 55 people who addressed the panel agreed that Peaks Island is a unique place, filled with passionate, opinionated people who create a vibrant community.
But they were almost evenly split in their opinions about a bill proposed by Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York, that would allow the island to secede from Portland.
In his introduction, Weaver asked the committee to support LD 1079 and give islanders a vote on secession.
Residents were denied that opportunity in 2007, when the committee voted 7-5 to kill a previous secession effort. That decision led to the creation of the Peaks Island Council, which is considered a failed experiment.
Weaver portrayed the current secession effort as an epic fight for independence – a tale of David versus Goliath.
“Put yourself in their position, since they are held captive by a bigger and stronger town,” Weaver said. “Peaks Island Council is at the mercy of the Portland City Council. Their input is ignored. They do not have a say in the council’s decisions.”
He added, “We as humble state representatives should be like Moses, who said ‘Let my people go.'”
The committee heard a full day of testimony from islanders on both sides of the issue. Many wore pins signifying their allegiance, and the two sides sat largely on separate sides of the room.
Secession proponents said they are concerned about paying more in property taxes than they are receiving in services. They said, even by the city’s account, islanders generate about $5.5 million in revenue for the city, but only receive about $4.1 million in services.
They support the bill, they said, because they feel it will force the city to negotiate with islanders, so residents can know what it would cost to be an independent town.
Opponents, however, argued the process must not sidestep state law. They included Democratic Sen. Justin Alfond, Democratic Rep. Peter Stuckey, Mayor Nick Mavodones, City Councilor Ed Suslovic, and representatives of the Portland Regional Chamber and the Maine Municipal Association.
Mavodones said the islanders looking to split from Portland should not be allowed to pursue that goal without gaining signed petitions, holding open discussions, and an official vote on the island.
“As an elected official I find it very troubling the effort to secede from the city of Portland could proceed without any of us in this room knowing the true wishes of the residents,” Mavodones said.
“I would contend that allowing this bill to move forward would set a precedent that would embolden individuals around the state to try and rewrite the boundaries of their town,” he added.
Secession proponents, however, argued that island residents have tried to mediate their differences with the city, but the city has not been responsive. They noted that last year the PIC all but dissolved amid frustration.
Former PIC Chairman Michael Richards said he believes the success of the PIC should not be measured by whether it met regularly or submitted requests to the city.
“The success of the (PIC) should be measured by whether the City Council does as the islanders ask,” Richards said. “In my view the islanders did what you asked; the city of Portland did not.”
While proponents argued that 2007 petition drive and advisory vote still accurately reflect islanders’ views on secession, opponent Scott Nash said that a lot has changed in the last four years.
Nash held up a petition he said was signed by more than 340 registered Peaks voters who want the secession process to follow the established procedure. He said the petition is “current and real” evidence of island sentiment.
“It’s bold to sign this given the climate this small (secession) group has created,” Nash said.
But proponent Sidney Gerard said LD 1079 is the only way islanders will get the information they need to make an informed decision, since it would force the city to negotiate outstanding debts and assets.
“We (will) settle that before we go to a vote,” Gerard said.
Schools were another issue. Proponents suggested that secession is the only way to maintain and keep the island school open, which they said is critical to attracting year-round residents.
Opponents, meanwhile, expressed concern their children would no longer be included in the city district that allows their kids to attend King Middle School, which they consider to be one of the best in the state.
Proponent Rand Gee said the island will be kept in a sort of “purgatory” about all of these issues unless legislators approved the bill and let the island vote. Without that, he predicted secession would continue to divide the island.
“We believe we need to get to a vote,” Gee said. “We’re stuck.”
Committee clerk Veronica Snow said 27 people testified in support of the bill, 24 spoke against it and four people were neutral.
This report was update on Wednesday, April 13, 2011.
Peaks Island resident Jane Gerard testifies in favor of LD 1079 on Monday in Augusta before the Joint Standing Committee on State and Local Government. The bill would allow islanders to vote on seceding from Portland.
Secession organizer Judy Piawlock speaks with state Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York, before Monday’s public hearing in Augusta on Weaver’s bill, which would open the door for Peaks Island to secede from Portland.
Scott Nash holds a petition he said was signed by more than 340 Peaks Island residents who oppose secession from Portland.