Montville residents took on several issues pertaining to self governance at Saturday’s annual town meeting, particularly two articles aimed at solidifying the rights of local farmers who wish to trade homegrown goods with their neighbors.

The meeting drew more than 150 people to the Montville Town House on March 31, where voters disposed of a total of 45 articles during the course of nearly seven hours. At the mid-point of the day, voters took an hour-long break for the community luncheon at the neighboring grange hall.

Voters spent about 45 minutes discussing Article 9, which sought voter approval to enact “An Ordinance to Protect the Health and Integrity of the Local Food System in the Town of Montville.”

Similar ordinances, aimed at challenging higher branches of government, have been adopted in other towns in recent years, most notably being the passage of a Local Food and Self Governance Ordinance in Blue Hill last March. While Maine Municipal Association has maintained that these kinds of rights-based ordinances won’t likely hold up in court, according to previously published reports, it has not stopped local residents from enacting similar ordinances as a way to send a message to elected representatives in Augusta and beyond.

And while some have argued that enacting such ordinances would only bring more attention to the ongoing practices of small farmers trading or selling goods such as raw milk with their neighbors, such ordinances had not drawn much heat from the state until last November. That’s when the state Department of Agriculture summoned Blue Hill farmer Dan Brown for selling raw milk without proper disclosure labeling.

That series of events was the catalyst behind the version of the ordinance that was being proposed in Montville Saturday.

Some residents expressed concern about how such a move might impact the health of residents, and about the proposed language in the ordinance itself.

One woman spoke to the portion of the ordinance that states the purpose of the document, which notes that state and federal regulations “impede local food production and constitute a usurpation of our of our citizens’ right to foods of their choice.”

“It shows no regard for the health and safety of consumers, either inside the town or outside of town,” she said.

She also said she feels the ordinance would be illegal because it would go against existing laws at the state level, and referred to language in the section of the ordinance regarding the town’s action against preemption as “frightening.”

In that section, the proposed ordinance stated, “Any attempt to use other units and levels of government to preempt, amend, alter or overturn this ordinance or parts of this ordinance shall require the town to hold public meetings that explore the adoption of other measures that expand local control and the ability of citizens to protect their fundamental and inalienable right to self government. It is declared that those other measures may legitimately include the partial or complete separation of the Town from other units and levels of government that attempt to preempt, amend, alter or overturn this ordinance.”

The woman said that language could go as far as allowing for the secession of the town from the state of Maine.

Town Health Officer Jennifer Gunderman-King encouraged voters to think twice about enacting the ordinance. Goods such as preserves, she said, are tested to make sure pH levels are where they should be in order to prevent consumers from becoming seriously ill.

“I’m scared about the really well-intentioned person who doesn’t have the pH [levels] checked on their products,” she said.

Planning Board Chairman Peter Kassen said while there is no indication the Planning Board would be expected to enforce the proposed ordinance, members of the board did take issue with one section that stated any “inconsistent provisions of prior ordinances are hereby repealed.”

“When we look at it with our planning board hats on, then we have concerns,” he said. “… It says inconsistent provisions can be repealed, but it doesn’t really note how those repeals would happen.”

Kassen said the proposed ordinance language indicates repeals can take place without coming before the town or elected officials, and that it could be “good news for lawyers.”

Kassen used Shoreland Zoning as an example, stating that if one resident decided they did not have to comply with those regulations as their neighbors have, it would cause others in town to wonder why one person can excuse themselves from adhering to those regulations.

“The planning board can’t settle it, and the selectmen can’t,” he said. “That’s when everyone gets their lawyers.”

Others, like Resident Peter Maruhnic, said they felt the ordinance should be enacted as a way for the town to openly show its dissatisfaction with the way food is typically handled and distributed.

“The food system is out of control in this country, and this is a statement that says, ‘I don’t like it,'” said Maruhnic.

Maruhnic later stated that while a proposed resolution in Article 10 dealing with the same issue would also likely get the attention of state and federal government officials, he said he felt enacting the ordinance would be the more attention-grabbing move of the two options.

“I think if the resolution passes, people in Augusta or Washington will look at it and say, ‘That’s cute,'” he said. “But if we enact this ordinance, I think they might say, ‘This is a problem.'”

Another voter, however, said he was concerned about what kind of liability the town could face if someone does become ill as a result of consuming locally grown or processed products. Someone might refrain from going after a small farmer, he said, but might instead opt to go after the town.

Others in town said they were interested in knowing not just where their food comes from, but from whom.

“I know who it is that’s selling to me, and I can make them accountable,” countered a woman in the audience. “But I can’t make Hannaford’s accountable for selling me tainted meat.”

Another resident encouraged voters to “get past” the fear that locals would willingly bring lawsuits against one another if someone were to get sick as a result of consuming tainted food.

“I think we have to trust each other as neighbors,” she said. “I just think we have more sense than that.”

Some residents, like Karen York, questioned why the ordinance was necessary.

“Why do we even need this, we’ve been doing it for years,” she said. “I’m not sure what’s changed that makes it so we have to have this ordinance.”

Resident G.W. Martin, whose media company recently released a documentary about Brown’s case in Blue Hill, said Brown and his wife had been milking one cow and selling the raw milk to two neighboring families for the past five years. Martin said Brown is now being sued by the state for not labeling the milk properly and for not being certified as a distributor. Martin said the ordinance would serve as a way stand up as a town and say that’s not the way to treat small farmers who are involved in the kind of trading and bartering practices that Maine farming families have been engaging in for generations.

“Now, for someone who’s selling milk, they have to be a distributor,” he said, noting that for someone with one or two cows, getting equipment and facilities up to state standards is financially out of reach.

Martin said through documents recently obtained from the state Department of Agriculture as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request, he learned of three people who were actively involved in the local food movement who also turned in the selling and trading activities of fellow local farmers.

“That’s absolutely unacceptable,” said Martin.

Martin said getting the ordinance enacted may attract the attention of state officials to the ongoing activities of local farmers, but it would also send the message that Montville residents don’t need oversight on these matters.

“The way I feel about the ordinance is we’re telling the the state, ‘hey, Montville’s all set,'” he said.

Another woman in the audience agreed.

“We should be able to make a living selling a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs or a jar of pickles,” she said.

When it came time to vote, residents did so by way of secret ballot and returned with a decision to defeat the article, 86-39.

When residents returned from lunch they easily passed Article 10, which sought adoption of the Montville Local Food Security Resolution. The resolution, which some voters said carried less abrasive language than the proposed ordinance, states that while the town “bears no liability for endorsing our farmers/producers” there is an expectation that all local food be “raised/produced or prepared with respect for the dignity, health and nutrition of the citizens and any animals involved, and with respect and care for our shared natural resources.”

In election news, Cathy Roberts defeated John Billings in her bid for the second selectman’s post, 92-53, a position that had previously been held by Glen Widmer. Later on in the meeting, First Selectman Jay LeGore thanked Widmer for his service to the town. LeGore defeated Billings and a second challenger, Wilbur Fuller, to retain his seat on the board, with LeGore garnering 86 votes, Billings getting 38 and Fuller drawing 21 votes. Incumbent Herman Peaslee won his race against Fuller for the third selectman’s post, with Peaslee securing 94 votes over Fuller’s 43.

Reporter Tanya Mitchell can be reached at 338-3333 or tmitchell@villagesoup.com.