2016-10-28 / Front Page

No shortage of questions in charter referendum

Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — Biddeford residents have many choices to make in the Nov. 8 general election. On top of selecting legislators and approving or rejecting referendums, they’ll have to decide whether to approve 19 questions pertaining to the city’s charter.

The Charter Revision Commission, which has been working for the past year to identify changes in the charter they feel are necessary, is hoping voters will approve all 19 questions.

Paul Therrien, chair of the commission, said in a letter Thursday the ballot’s goals are to improve accountability and increase transparency of city government, establish a code of ethics, promote long-term capital improvement planning and secure needed funds for residential and commercial revaluation of properties.

Question 1 asks voters if they want to abolish the police and fire commissions in favor of establishing both police and fire advisory committees.

Therrien said in an interview Thursday the current model of having the police and fire chiefs report to elected commissions is outdated since Biddeford utilizes a city manager form of government.

“All department heads should be working for the city manager,” Therrien said. “That’s what motivated us to look at that.”

Therrien said a proposal to eliminate the commissions in 2012 failed in part because no alternative was offered for the public to voice their concerns regarding the Police and Fire Departments.

“We are establishing a police and fire committee for that very important civilian oversight,” Therrien said. “We also need the chiefs to work for a professional, i.e. a city manager.”

Mayor Alan Casavant, in an email to constituents on Saturday, said he supported the change, noting the outdated form of government has been in practice since the city charter’s 1935 update.

Casavant also voiced his support for Question 4, which asks residents if they want the City Council to appropriate .05 percent of the previous year’s taxable valuation for the purpose of funding capital improvements.

“I do think that councils need to appropriately budget for capital improvements,” Casavant said. “We are currently in a situation where we are paying for capital projects that should have been funded years ago, but were not, because past councils and mayors wanted to maintain a low tax rate.”

If approved, the measure would add about 48 cents to the tax rate. However, taxpayers will likely see little increase in their taxes, Casavant said, because the amount budgeted in the charter question is about the same currently being budgeted for projects by the council, and so the effect on the mil rate is about the same.

Casavant, however, said he is not in support of Questions 2 or 3. Question 2 asks voters if they want to approve a change that all residential and commercial city properties undergo a citywide revaluation every 10 years, with a statistical update every five years.

If approved by voters, the change would add about 4 cents to the mil rate, increasing it from $19.86 to $19.90. The change would amount to an additional $8 paid on a $200,000 home, Therrien said.

Casavant said he’s against the change because it would allow for periodic revaluations through a system of yearly budgeting.

Question 3, if approved, would require the city manager and School Committee to prepare and submit a five-year capital improvement plan to the Budget Committee, mayor and City Council by the second council meeting in November of each year.

Casavant said the charter commission has been concerned that the city hasn’t set aside enough money for capital improvements in the past, and agreed that is the case, but believes the November time frame is impractical because the council doesn’t see the budget until March.

Voters will also decide if they believe the mayor should not be allowed to hold any other city, county, state or federal office, a question Therrien said he supports.

“I think the community wants their chief executive officer to be totally focused on his or her duties and responsibilities as the chief executive officer of the city. That’s where your energy needs to be,” he said.

Casavant is a former state legislator, who served on the Legislature for a portion of the time he’s been mayor, decried the question, saying none of the commission’s members reached out to him about his experience or for his thoughts. He said being in both roles served the city well.

“Serving in both positions was advantageous to the city, as I was in regular contact with those who pass state laws ... I could be part of the legislative process, and lobby on behalf of city needs,” Casavant said. “This question, quite frankly, is ridiculous, and I would argue it is illegal.”

Positions aside, Therrien said it is crucial all residents vote on every question come election day. Per the city charter, at least 30 percent of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election have to cast a ballot of each a question or no changes can be made.

According to Therrien, 7,793 people voted in Biddeford in 2014 during the gubernatorial election. This year, at least 2,337 people must vote on every charter question for any changes to take effect. If 2,336 or fewer people vote on any question, then the entire charter will remain the same, Therrien said.

It is possible for some questions to pass and others to fail, Therrien added. If enough constituents vote on any question and it is approved, the charter will be changed for that provision. If enough constituents vote on a question with a “no” vote, the original charter’s language will remain the same.

Other questions discuss residency requirements for the city manager and school superintendent, and the number of positions city officials can hold, plus many more. A complete list of all charter revision questions and a sample ballot can be found online at biddefordmaine.org/.

— Staff Writer Alan Bennett can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or abennett@journaltribune.com.

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