Bangor mulls advocacy in state referendums

Posted July 14, 2009, at 9:29 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A City Council subcommittee debated at length Tuesday about whether Bangor should come out in opposition of two polarizing statewide referendum questions, but the discussion largely focused on whether taking a clear position was prudent action.

Members of the government operations committee narrowly voted to send draft resolves to the full council that would oppose the referendum known as TABOR II and the referendum that would reduce auto excise taxes for some. The subcommittee did not offer a recommendation on either, which means the full City Council will take up the issues at its next meeting on Monday, July 27.

Tuesday’s full-throated and partisan debate may serve be a preview of that meeting as well as the next few months leading up to November.

“I’m not completely comfortable with the city doing anything more than stating facts,” said Councilor David Nealley, perhaps the most conservative of counselors, adding, “It doesn’t bother me to think that voters are weighing in.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, Councilor Pat Blanchette said the state is veering into dangerous water with citizen referendums and she feared voter burnout. Besides, she said, “What are we elected for? There are so many things the public doesn’t know, nor should they. That’s why they elect us.”

City Manager Edward Barrett prepared background material for city councilors that detailed his own feelings on TABOR II and the excise tax referendum.

Speaking about TABOR II, which would require voter approval of municipal spending over certain set limits, Barrett said it would take all budgeting power away from city government.

As for the excise tax proposal, which would reduce the rate for vehicles 5 years old or newer, the city manager said it would take away $1.8 million in annual tax revenue while benefiting only about one-third of residents.

Both citizen initiatives were led by conservative groups and the debate over each has further divided the political left from the political right. Judging by the turnout at Tuesday’s meeting, there seems to be more on the right in Bangor. Seven residents spoke in opposition of the city taking a stand against either referendum.

“I strongly believe that in the long term, TABOR will increase revenue,” said William Beardsley, president of Husson University, speaking as a resident.

Trevor Bragdon, who led the effort to gather signatures to get TABOR II on the ballot, said if the council publicly opposed a referendum, it would send the message that it was unwilling to listen to taxpayer input.

Paul Trommer said councilors are free to have their own opinions on issues but shouldn’t take a position as a group. It should be pointed out that the Bangor City Council has taken positions on many issues over the years.

Although there was less debate among residents over the excise tax initiative, the central question from Tuesday seemed to be whether taking a stand amounts to advocacy. That question was not answered and the debate is likely to continue at least for another couple weeks.

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