CARIBOU, Maine — The effort to split one northern Maine municipality into two communities moved a step closer to reality Monday night.
Members of the Caribou Secession Committee submitted their petition to leave Caribou and take 80 percent of its landmass with them.
“Tonight, after nearly nine months of circulating our petition and tabulating the results, we are submitting it to you for certification by the city clerk,” Secession Committee Spokesperson Paul Camping told members of the city council.
Camping told councilors that supporters gathered about 1,250 signatures, which he was confident exceeded the number needed to require a public hearing and advance the cause. The exact number of signatures required has to be more than 50 percent of the registered voters in the proposed area of secession; that number will be determined by Caribou City Clerk Jayne Farrin.
Leaders of the petition effort have previously stated that they have not been happy with the city’s property tax rates and the services they get for their taxes. Maynard St. Peter said what would become the new town of Lyndon could promise residents as much service as they are receiving now at a mill rate of $15.90 per $1,000 of property value — 25 percent less than Caribou’s current $22.30 mill rate.
“That’s a big change for people who are having a hard time not making the [tax] payments,” he said.
The committee’s Facebook page indicates that the group is made up of predominantly rural citizens who have been dissatisfied with Caribou city government for a long time.
“The high taxes, the yearly tax increases and the arrogance of unchecked power have finally reached the breaking point. … Many citizens feel like our current municipal officials are their adversaries, not public servants. We believe we can do a much better job governing ourselves,” the Facebook page states.
On Monday night, Camping handed a binder of petition forms to Mayor Gary Aiken, who thanked Camping, and the subject of secession at the council meeting was wrapped up in about 90 seconds.
Following the City Council meeting, a handful of secession committee supporters gathered in the city clerk’s office to await the petition’s acceptance by Farrin and to receive a receipt for the exchange.
Later that night, Camping said that all 44 petition documents were logged in and accepted by the clerk. He also mentioned that there was a little dispute between secessionists and Farrin regarding the borders of what would become the town of Lyndon, should secession efforts prove successful.
Simply put, most of rural Caribou would become the town of Lyndon; rural Lyndon’s proposed borders nearly encircle a smaller square that is downtown Caribou. The new Caribou, for example, would no longer border Presque Isle, Fort Fairfield, Limestone or Connor.
To define what would and would not be Lyndon, Camping and his fellow secessionists combined street numbers on a map with corresponding GPS coordinates.
“Our petition clearly states that the lines drawn on the map are intended to follow property lines, and the last sentence under the last GPS coordinate says words to the effect that ‘exact points will have to be established with an instrument survey,’” Camping explained.
Discrepancy arose on Monday night when the Caribou city clerk’s coordinates for Lyndon’s borders proved slightly different than the secession committee’s estimation; Camping said that Farrin was attempting to exclude some of the petition signatures based on the different street numbers and GPS coordinates.
“There’s going to be a concerted effort to knock our petition down any way possible,” Camping said late Monday night. “If there’s a loophole, [the Caribou city clerk] is going to drive a truck through it.”
Caribou’s City Manager Austin Bleess feels that comments like Camping’s are not only blatantly false, “but it’s Washington-style politics that is unnecessary and not called for on the local level,” he said Tuesday morning.
“Contrary to what the secession committee may believe, the city staff is not working against them in this process,” Bleess said, commenting that city staff has spent numerous hours assisting the secession committee members in their many requests, and have gone above and beyond to provide them with the information they have sought.
“State law is strict on how petitions are dealt with to ensure the integrity of the petition and the petition process. Jayne will uphold state law to ensure that integrity,” the city manager added, emphasizing that Farrin is a dedicated civil servant to Caribou and its citizens.
“To be unfairly targeted for upholding the integrity of the process crosses the line. There are no loopholes. This is not an ‘us versus them’ situation, and it is unfortunate the committee is resorting to these reckless and untruthful attacks on the integrity of city staff and the petition process,” he said.
Under state law, Farrin has 30 days to verify the signatures on the petition. Once she does, the city is required to hold a public hearing “to allow municipal residents, officers and residents in the secession territory to discuss secession.”
The petition leaders — which include Camping, St. Peter, Milo Haney, Doug Morrell and Freeman Cote — also are legally required to conduct a formal presentation. That meeting is intended to have participants discuss the problems that led to the secession effort, potential solutions other than secession and the potential impact the move could have on both new Lyndon and new Caribou.
St. Peter thinks that Caribou could be preserved as a whole, but not unless major concessions are made by the existing government.
“This is a big ‘if,’” he prefaced. “If our complaints are met, and the city changes its ways — which they have refused to in all past instances — I think there is a possibility for the city to remain whole.”
“Of course they have to go back to a town form of government — that’s non-negotiable,” St. Peter added.
St. Peter was confident that his views reflected those of the secession committee members and the voters who signed the petition.
Monica Sprague, who went door-to-door collecting signatures in support of the secession movement, said that overwhelmingly, folks were happy to sign.
“People were saying ‘If it wasn’t for you going around with the petition, how would any of us little guys be able to fight the system?’” she explained.
Sprague and the movement’s lead petition circulator Milo Haney agreed that more people approved of the secession movement than the petition reflects.
“Everyone that I came in contact with that was either a city employee or a person who rented a city building, they would not sign out of fear of their jobs,” Sprague said. “It’s not that they didn’t agree with what we were doing. They did agree, but they would not sign — which was interesting. They just said ‘We can’t do it, because they are going to raise my rent,’ or ‘They are going to kick me out of the position I’m in.’”
Haney, Sprague and St. Peter explained that of the estimated 1,600 individuals the secessionists spoke with, only about 350 said “no” to withdrawing from Caribou.
“There’s no question that we’re solid,” St. Peter said.
He said he expects that during the public hearing, the committee members will display their ideas for how their proposed form of government will run, what it will cost to operate and what services would be provided.