Referendum chosen over warrant for wastewater vote

By Stephanie Grinnell | Apr 06, 2018

Stockton Springs — At the urging of a former selectman, Stockton Springs voters may have the chance to weigh in at the polls on proceeding with a wastewater treatment system after selectmen back-pedaled on a plan to include the information in the town meeting warrant.

Instead, a question will be placed on the June ballot that states: “Are you in favor of pursuing funding and other resources for the purpose of constructing a Wastewater Treatment Facility in the commercially zoned area along the Route 1 corridor of Stockton Springs?”

The ballot also will include a note outlining the projected costs — $4.3 million in upfront construction and approximately $113,000 per year. A vote in favor of the referendum question only authorizes town officials to proceed with grant and loan funding research and applications. Another town-wide vote is required to approve construction costs.

In late February, selectmen announced they did not intend to continue the process after hearing the projected multimillion-dollar cost. Wright Pierce engineers presented a completed study to the board Feb. 15 for an area including fewer than 20 parcels.

However, last month, selectmen decided to include a warrant article during the annual town meeting to allow residents the chance to vote on the project.

Former Selectman Leslie Cosmano objected to including the question on the warrant and urged selectmen to have a local referendum question instead. A referendum, she said, would draw more people than the annual town meeting, which typically attracts fewer than 100 residents.

Town Manager Courtney O'Donnell said town officials are not trying to hide anything by placing the question on the warrant. She noted the entire approval process to date has been done at the town meeting and it seemed logical to continue on that path.

“We can't forget we did this at town meeting and got approval and there was no objection to the smaller group,” O'Donnell said during the April 5 morning meeting.

Selectmen were split on the issue of how to present the question to residents but agreed on the expected outcome: failure.

Selectman Peter Curley said feedback he's heard is negative.

“I just don't think the town would go for it,” he said of funding construction.

O'Donnell agreed and said, “Feedback I've received is people don't want to pay for something that doesn't benefit them directly.”

Selectmen Betsy Bradley initially stood her ground during the discussion, advocating for the question to be on the warrant.

“I'd rather see people discuss it,” she said. A referendum requires people to research before voting, Bradley said, and often large dollar amounts are approved without question. “The warrant allows discussion and I think that's important.”

Questions about the project at town meeting would have to be answered by selectmen and the town manager, Cosmano noted. Curley said he does not feel qualified to answer any questions posed at town meeting about the project, particularly technical questions. Bradley said while selectmen may not have all of the answers, she trusts O'Donnell's abilities to be informed.

“I like the idea of the warrant, I like the idea of discussion, but I think the result will be the same,” Bradley said, later adding, “I'd rather have 80 informed people.”

“I envisioned something a lot less money than this,” Curley said, adding selectmen are elected to make decisions on behalf of the town. “This is something we can't afford. All of a sudden it's not good enough to put it on the warrant. At town meeting it would be a closer vote but at the polls it will go down in flames.”

Cosmano, too, agreed construction funding is not likely to be approved but said more people voting gives a better opportunity for all residents to have their say. She said she was concerned about those with conflicting plans not being present for town meeting.

“I'm not here to push for a yes vote, I'm not here to push for a no vote,” Cosmano said. “I'm here for the process. … This is a town decision.”

As selectmen mulled the options, Curley moved to include a referendum question on the June ballot, but his motion died when it was not seconded. Selectmen then sought O'Donnell's opinion on how best to proceed in presenting the question to residents.

“I really think this is a select board decision,” she said, later noting residents expect to vote on the proposal one way or another.

“Common sense needs to play into this someplace,” Curley said. “We have an obligation to pass on what we think is the best way for the town to move forward.”

Selectman Tom Fraser said selectmen “were put in office to make a decision.”

“Not a $4 million one!” Cosmano replied.

Following a few additional minutes of debate, Bradley moved to present a referendum question, and Curley seconded. Selectmen unanimously approved the motion. Wording for the referendum was developed by O'Donnell and presented and approved at the evening meeting.

There will be a public hearing on the referendum question April 19 during the regular morning meeting of the Board of Selectmen at 9 a.m.

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Stephanie Grinnell
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Stephanie is editor of The Republican Journal in Belfast. She previously served as editor of Camden Herald following its return in April 2012.

Stephanie also was editor of VillageSoup's Capital Weekly in Augusta and has nearly a decade of experience in the newspaper business ranging from southern and central Maine to Waldo County.

Outside the office, she enjoys reading, cooking and gardening.

Stephanie lives in Washington with her husband Jeff, four children, a dog named Chewbacca, a rabbit and chickens.

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