BAR HARBOR — The town council broke its own rules by refusing to place citizens’ petitions on the June town meeting ballot, according to a Maine Superior Court ruling.
Justice Robert Murray ruled April 30 that ordinance amendments supported by citizens’ petitions this winter must be put before the voters in June of this year, not November as councilors originally decided. In his ruling, he ordered that the ordinance amendments, which deal with electrical substation regulations, be placed on the June 9 town meeting ballot.
“The town’s failure to set the warrant for a vote in June runs counter to the mandatory language of the town’s charter, and the town’s actions were erroneous,” Justice Murray wrote. “The town charter quite clearly obligates the town council to insert the plaintiff’s initiative petition on a special warrant on the ballot at its June 9, 2015 meeting.”
Attorney Arthur Greif, who brought the case against the town along with plaintiff Sam Dunlap, said via email that the ruling represents a victory for all the citizens of the town.
“This is a victory for democracy, a victory for the seven hardy souls who gathered over 650 signatures in a single week in January – during a hard Maine winter – and a victory for government by the people of Bar Harbor,” Greif said.
The citizens’ petitions that were the subject of the lawsuit were spearheaded by citizens unhappy with Emera Maine’s plans to build an electric power substation on Woodbury Road. They were first reviewed by town councilors on Feb. 17.
The petitions proposed two distinct ordinance changes, one of which would clarify the term “public utility installation” as a power or cable hookup.
The other would create the term “public utility facility” to define substations and the like and would give the Planning Board the highest level of permitting scrutiny when reviewing such projects.
The latter would be barred from certain zoning districts, including the one where Woodbury Road is located and where Dunlap lives.
Town councilors agreed in February that they were compelled to place the land use ordinance (LUO) amendments before voters, but said that to do so in June would create a confusing situation. In June, voters are set to weigh in on a long-in-the-works proposed repeal and rewrite of the entire LUO. The language in the proposed citizens’ amendments runs contradictory to this document, councilors found.
This ordinance rewrite, if passed, would introduce a restructured document, one that takes information currently in the Appendix C table of uses and moves it into individual chapters.
Because the amendments proposed in the citizen’s petitions outline changes to be made to Appendix C, councilors found that seeing it on the June ballot would both confuse voters and set up potentially conflicting results.
On the advice of town attorney Rob Crawford, councilors supported a reading of the town charter which allowed them to hold off on placing the proposal before the voters so long as voters were able to weigh in within a year of its introduction.
Justice Murray completely disagreed with this interpretation in his April 28 ruling.
Attempts to reach town manager Cornell Knight were not immediately successful.