Belfast council votes to ask state retirement system to divest from fossil fuels

Posted March 19, 2014, at 12:28 p.m.
Last modified March 19, 2014, at 3:17 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — After long deliberation at Tuesday night’s regular meeting, Belfast city councilors have decided to ask the Maine Public Employees Retirement System to divest from its fossil fuel-related investments.

One strong supporter of the measure, David Smith of Belfast, said he believes Belfast to be the state’s first municipality to call for the system to divest from those holdings.

“This is a big issue,” he told councilors before they discussed the matter. “We are part of a worldwide movement making a strong statement about the fossil fuel industry. As the planet warms, as we hear of one terrible [fossil-fuel] accident after another — let’s dedicate our action tonight to our children.”

But not all the councilors favored the motion. Nancy Hamilton read lengthy letters from the presidents of Harvard and Tufts universities, who opposed a call to divest their hefty endowment of fossil fuel-related investments.

One of the college presidents said that there was a “troubling inconsistency” in divesting from products and services that are used by so many. Hamilton said that asking Maine PERS to divest from those investments might be tantamount to asking the agency’s trustees to “violate their legal and moral obligation.” Instead, she said that people in Belfast are taking steps to reduce energy use, including building cheap, effective window inserts for community members.

“Those are more than just symbolic gestures,” she said.

But Councilor Eric Sanders said that even if asking to divest is just a gesture, it needs to be made.

“I do see symbolically asking them to divest from fossil fuels is the least I can do,” he said. “Harvard may be right — but I’d rather go out on a limb.”

Councilor Roger Lee went further.

“In the end, what Harvard and Tufts are saying is that the growth of their endowment is more important to them than the planet,” he said.

Sandy Matheson, executive director of the $12.3 billion state system, said Wednesday that Belfast indeed is the first municipality in Maine to call for this kind of divestment. She also said that the organization for months has been developing what she called an “environmental, social and governance policy” to help guide its investment and fiscal decisions. That policy would consider environmental issues, including global warming and fossil fuels, she said.

“Do we consider these issues important? Absolutely,” she said.

But pension funds are very different from university endowments, which are essentially gifts from the donor.

“We hold money in trust,” she said. “Our fiduciary duty is to invest that prudently, and prudently includes considering these factors.”

In other business, councilors heard a report about the first phase of updating the Belfast Municipal Airport Master Plan from consultant James Miklas with Massachusetts-based Airport Solutions Group. The publicly owned general aviation airport has about 10,000 takeoffs and landings a year, an average of 27 per day.

Some local businesses make almost daily use of the airport, and have approached the city with a request that the airport be able to accommodate corporate jets.

Miklas said that the runway should be enlarged from 4,000 feet to 4,710 feet to accommodate the larger aircraft. The city also could activate an undeveloped crosswinds runway. He told the council that creating a parallel runway and doing other necessary work could cost more than $3.75 million, but the airport likely would be eligible for government grants to offset much of the costs.

“This is a study,” City Manager Joe Slocum said. “Information we’re looking at. It’s not a done deal.”

Councilors also held a moment of silence to mark the recent deaths of Col. Bruce MacLaren, who served on many city committees, including the council, and Elizabeth Minor, a 16-year member of the Belfast Planning Board.

An ordinance also was passed to increase seating in waterfront restaurants without triggering a need for additional parking.

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