Bangor council refuses change to require voter approval on borrowing; supporters seek referendum

Posted May 17, 2011, at 9:57 a.m.
Last modified May 17, 2011, at 2:42 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — City councilors on Monday squashed a citizen proposal that sought to change the municipal charter by requiring voter approval of certain borrowing.

The two residents who brought the idea to councilors, however, said they plan to proceed with a petition drive to try to make the charter change through the referendum process.

Members of the City Council’s finance committee discussed at length the proposal by Pauline Civiello and Linda Thomas, who said their goal was simply to offer taxpayers a say in when the city should borrow money.

“People are interested in being a part of [decisions],” Civiello said, adding that if voters had a say, “fewer people will be angry if things don’t turn out the way they want.”

The proposal as drafted would require a vote anytime the city sought to borrow an amount greater than a specific percentage of total property valuation. For 2011, that threshold would be approximately $1.2 million for capital improvement projects or general obligation bonds. Some types of borrowing, such as borrowing in anticipation of tax revenue or borrowing to address an emergency situation, would be exempt under the proposal.

Many other municipalities in Maine have provisions in their charters to require voters to approve borrowing under certain conditions, and voter approval is required of most statewide bonds as well.

Councilors in Bangor said although the idea was well-intentioned, it had the potential to create many unintended consequences.

Besides, they said, the city has no history of being reckless with borrowing money.

“If there was a problem, I could support this,” Councilor Pat Blanchette said. “But we have the ear of the people most of the time.”

Civiello and Thomas came up with the proposed charter change as the city debated plans for a new $65 million arena and convention center complex, a project that would require a large loan. They said they couldn’t believe nine councilors had the power to borrow such a large sum of money without asking voters.

Earlier this month, voters enthusiastically approved the arena and convention center plans by a 3-to-1 ratio, but the vote did little to deter Civiello and Thomas.

Councilor Cary Weston said it was clear to him that the charter discussion was a continuation of anti-arena sentiment and an ongoing lack of trust in government. Councilor David Nealley called the discussion a “Tea Party hangover.”

Councilor Nelson Durgin agreed that the debate has less to do with borrowing money and more to do with whether a representative government works.

“We are elected by the people to carry out the will of the people,” he said.

Councilor Gerry Palmer said if residents want to have a more active role in making changes, they should run for the council.

Any changes to the city charter require voter approval, but that vote can be set either by councilors or through the referendum process. After Monday’s meeting, Thomas said she plans to start a petition drive, something that is becoming more and more common in Bangor.

The arena referendum was defeated in a lopsided vote, but city voters in November will decide whether the city should consolidate police and fire dispatch services with Penobscot County.

Additionally, some residents have threatened to challenge the city if it decides to move to single stream recycling and a pay-as-you-throw trash removal system.

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