June 18, 2018
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Proposal to require citizen approval for expensive projects rejected by Bangor councilors

By Andrew Neff, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — A proposal to require citizen approval for city projects above a certain price range was shelved Monday night at a special Bangor City Council meeting.

The proposal’s language called for amending the charter to require voter ratification of any project — not including infrastructure improvements such as schools, roads or bridges — costing $17 million or more.

With eight of nine councilors in attendance at City Hall, seven voted against sending the measure on to a committee or full council for further review.

There is a citizens’ petition being circulated in Bangor that would require citizen approval through public referendum of similar projects costing $1.2 million or more.

Pauline Civiello, one of the petition’s driving forces, was on hand to present the reasons for the petition drive and answer questions from the councilors.

When asked by Councilor Charlie Longo what spawned the petition drive, Civiello said it was a combination of things.

“That six people essentially could vote something costing millions to taxpayers was shocking to me,” she said. “Bangor has no checks and balances when it comes to taking out loans that are paid by its citizens.”

But the councilors disagreed; only Councilor Joe Baldacci gave the council proposal a thumbs up.

“To say there are no checks and balances or that there is some faction of the council that is operating unchecked is inaccurate,” said Councilor Cary Weston, who also acts as Bangor’s mayor. “There are checks and balances and a process in place that protects the citizens and the council from the actions of others and it’s worked for 175 years.”

Councilor Geoffrey Gratwick also found fault with the concept behind the proposal.

“I think we have a solution in search of a problem,” he said. “I feel very strongly that we’re taking a significant step backward with this citizen referendum-inspired charter change.”

Gratwick said he thinks some of the impetus for the petition drive is backlash for councilors’ support for building the newly named Cross Insurance Center.

“We’ve been very, very prudent over the years, and the assumption here is that some of these people are angry because we went ahead and spent money to build the arena,” he said.

Weston and fellow councilors Nelson Durgin and Ben Sprague said the irony is that the very mechanism that allows for this petition drive is a perfect example of the checks and balances that are already in place.

“We have continual checks and balances each year when there’s a vote that takes place in this representative form of government,” Weston said. “This is not a town meeting form of government. Our charter calls for nine individuals representing the city, and it also has a bunch of provisions for what citizens can do to act as checks and balances to councilors’ actions. One of those things is a citizen petition.”

Gratwick also referenced the citizen referendum last May in which the arena was approved by 75 percent of the voters.

“The citizens’ initiative is always available,” he said. “They’ve done it with the arena, they did it with the emergency dispatch center, they did it with a recall for city councilors.”

Sprague and Pat Blanchette pointed out the relatively significant cost of a city referendum, estimated to be $5,000 to $10,000, and the notoriously low voter turnout for nonpresidential elections, especially those held during summer months.

“We only have 2, 3, 4, maybe 5 percent vote, even for significant things like a school budget, which is more than half our city budget,” Blanchette said, adding that she wasn’t confident Bangor residents would even know exactly what they’re voting on if the charter amendment was adopted.

Baldacci said he thought they needed to have more confidence in the voters.

“In principle, I support it, but from a fiscally responsible perspective, it doesn’t make sense to me to have a system triggering multiple, frivolous, expensive, public elections,” said Sprague.

“Some citizens would like to see a certain charter change and to do that, they’re collecting signatures to have it on the ballot,” said Weston. “That’s their prerogative and their Constitutional right and I appreciate that.”

What Weston said he doesn’t appreciate is the notion the petition is based on: what could possibly happen in the future.

“Well, there are a number of things that could happen,” he said. “But there has been a pattern of good, sound fiscal responsibility the city has exercised the past 100 years or so, and to say we need a charter change to improve that I think is unnecessary.”

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