Newburgh residents work to rebuild trust, transparency at town meeting

Posted March 12, 2011, at 4:43 p.m.
Last modified March 13, 2011, at 3:20 p.m.

NEWBURGH, Maine — Last week, residents cast a series of votes designed to reclaim some of their power from elected officials and also to begin moving the town away from its financially troubled immediate past.

At the town meeting on Saturday held at the former Newburgh Elementary School, many of those same residents took another step by attempting to control the municipal budget, most of which is paid through their property taxes.

Townspeople didn’t always get what they wanted, but more than 150 spent a good part of their weekend keeping municipal staff and the Board of Selectmen in check.

“It’s a good crowd. We’ve had town meetings before where 25 people showed up,” said resident Mike Burns, who was voted in as the newest selectman Tuesday. “I’d much rather have [150] people making decisions than 25.”

The town meeting, often called the purest form of democracy, allows residents to take an active role in crafting municipal polices and budgets. Newburgh residents challenged the selectmen on nearly every item, sometimes unsuccessfully, but the mood was mostly civil.

Residents approved all of the budget item requests outlined in the town meeting warrant — created by the Board of Selectmen — but in a handful of cases, the budget amounts were reduced by request.

For instance, instead of approving $36,597 to pay for maintenance and utility costs associated with using the old school as the town office, residents appropriated $32,500.

In other cases, residents opted to appropriate money from a different source. For the $269,115 that was approved to make improvements to town roads and bridges, townspeople went against the selectmen’s recommendation to fund that amount entirely from taxes and instead voted to appropriate $200,000 from taxes and $69,115 from the town’s surplus.

Residents were not successful in trying to reduce the appropriation for administrative costs from $148,902 to $125,000.

By the end of the day Saturday, the town had approved about $1.8 million in municipal and school expenses anticipated for the 2011 fiscal year that begins July 1. The budget that was passed is not expected to have a significant impact on the property tax rate, although the final number was not immediately available, in part because the school budget has yet to be decided.

Many in attendance at the town meeting were members of the Concerned Citizens of Newburgh, a group known as the “Fixers,” that formed in the wake of financial mismanagement that was uncovered by a recent audit.

Former deputy town clerk Cindy Dunton has been charged with embezzling nearly $200,000 in town funds between 2006 and 2009. Dunton last appeared in Penobscot County Superior Court in January but her case is still pending.

Although Dunton was officially charged and removed from her job with the town, the concerned citizens’ group has remained at odds with the town and has continued to push for more changes.

Last Tuesday, the group elected Burns, one of its members, to the Board of Selectmen but also helped pass three referendum questions that will change the town’s structure beginning in 2012.

First, voters supported changing the town’s form of government from a town manager-selectmen form to an administrative assistant-selectmen arrangement to give the Board of Selectmen more authority.

Second, residents passed an ordinance allowing townspeople to recall any elected official regardless of when that person’s term expired.

Finally, Newburgh residents voted to increase the number of selectmen from three to five, beginning in March 2012.

Come next week, though, the current number of selectmen will be reduced to two, at least temporarily.

First Selectman Leonard “Buddy” Belcher announced Saturday that he was stepping down from his post at the next selectmen’s meeting.

“Based on the votes cast on March 8, it would appear that the majority of the voters want to move in a different direction than that which we have been working on for the past year,” he said. “That coupled with the hurtful, personal and mean actions of a small group have left me no choice but to resign.”

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