PORTLAND — There’s no legal impediment to lawmakers voting to allow Peaks Island to secede from Portland, the Attorney General’s Office has told advocates of the island’s independence.

“The Legislature can enact an authorizing bill (allowing secession) for Peaks Island if it chooses to,” read an e-mail from Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner, regardless of whether it has followed current laws on secession.

“I see nothing in the existing statutes that would prevent Peaks Island residents from making another attempt at secession, whether they take the path already outlined in the statute or seek to go around it with new legislation,” Pistner wrote.

“It’s only a statute,” Pistner said Tuesday of the procedure for secession. “The Legislature is free to change or amend … it or anything else.”

Pistner said her office was asked by the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee for information on whether the law would permit a bill proposing independence for the island in Casco Bay. She noted that it doesn’t carry the weight of a formal opinion.

Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York, has introduced a bill to authorize secession, have island representatives and city officials negotiate financial terms of separation – to be decided by arbitrators, if needed – and allow islanders to vote on seceding. With voters’ approval, Peaks Island would become an independent town on July 1, 2012.

Supporters of independence argue that, four years ago, they went through the steps that are supposed lead to secession, then went to lawmakers – as set out in the statute – for a bill to authorize it. In a party-line vote, Democrats on the State and Local Government Committee told islanders to go back to the city and try to work out their differences.

Islanders say they pay far more to the city in property taxes than they receive in services. They also contend that the city’s main attempt at reconciliation – setting up a Peaks Island Council with mostly advisory powers – backfired because the city either ignored the council’s requests or took steps that were opposite of what the island council wanted.

Russell Edwards, a Peaks Island resident who supports secession, said that if the Attorney General’s Office had said islanders had to go back to the beginning of the process outlined in the law, it could have taken more than a year to get back to the point of seeking legislation.

Pistner’s e-mail, he said, “makes a huge difference to us” because the statute “essentially threw up roadblocks” if it required new negotiations, hearings and advisory votes.

Windol said he asked the office that writes up legislation for lawmakers to hold off on his bill while the Attorney General’s Office reviewed the law. Now that Pistner has said the Legislature has the power to act, he said, he will ask the office to go ahead with drafting the proposal, which will go to the State and Local Government Committee.

“I thought they got the short stick last time,” said Weaver, who was on the committee when Peaks Island secession came up four years ago. “They’re kind of treated like a stepchild over there.”

Nicole Clegg, Portland’s spokeswoman, said city officials continue to believe that the statutory procedure for secession “outlines a thoughtful and purposeful process,” while Weaver’s bill would “circumvent this critical process.”

She noted that the City Council opposed secession when it was proposed initially by Peaks Islanders and wants to focus on ways to compromise, although it hasn’t yet taken a formal position on Weaver’s bill.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]