CAPE ELIZABETH – One of the Town Council’s goals for 2012 was to send voters a proposal in November to renovate and expand the town library — a project that could cost about $8.5 million, as much as the annual municipal budget.
But somewhere along the way, a majority of the councilors came to realize that they had been elected to make such decisions.
“I think the council can take in the big picture,” said Councilor David Sherman, who has led the effort to have the council decide on the expansion of Thomas Memorial Library.
When Sherman was elected, he said, he wasn’t told, “Welcome to the council, Mr. Sherman, but if it’s anything important, we won’t let you vote on that.”
The library has been an issue for years. Parts of the building are more than 150 years old, and most of it was never built to hold heavy stacks of books. The library doesn’t meet code for access for the disabled, and it has outmoded and inefficient electrical and heating systems.
The library’s board backed a plan to hold a private fundraising campaign — consultants suggested that about $2 million of the cost could come from donors — and then ask voters to approve a bond for the rest of the cost of upgrading and expanding the library.
Sherman said that in discussions of the process, someone noted that the town’s charter indicates the bond doesn’t require a referendum.
That struck a chord with Sherman, who said that constantly sending difficult questions to voters defeats the idea of representative government.
He said he supports the library expansion, although he hopes that the final design might be a little less expensive than what the library’s trustees have envisioned.
Earlier this month, the council adopted a time line for the library plan. It calls for a “public engagement” effort over the next five months, a public hearing in September and a council vote in October. The 5-2 vote for the time line suggests that a majority of the council will vote in favor of the library project.
The charter would give residents who oppose the decision 20 days to gather about 700 signatures to force a referendum. Because of the lead time required for an election, any referendum would be held next year. The council could schedule a special election in the winter or wait until June 2013, when the town’s school budget would also go to voters for approval.
The town could save the cost of an election, about $5,000, by holding the referendum along with a previously scheduled vote, which would be an argument in favor of a June vote.
Councilors Frank Governali and Caitlin Jordan opposed the time line. Neither could be reached for comment Wednesday, but Governali said at the council meeting last week that he worries about months of uncertainty if the council votes for the expansion, opponents force a referendum and a vote isn’t held until June 2013.
Governali has been skeptical of the need for an expanded library at a time when the use of e-books is reducing demand for printed volumes.
Several residents have complained that the council has broken faith with the voters by setting a goal of sending the issue to voters and then deciding to handle it without a referendum.
Philip Kaminsky told the council this month that its action wasn’t “ethically responsible” and said it was wrong to let as few as four people — a majority of the seven-member council — decide, rather than send the project to voters in November’s general election, when most residents could have a say.
In November 2008, 6,400 people voted in Cape Elizabeth, about 80 percent of registered voters.
Sherman said he thinks the council is sometimes too quick to pass the buck by asking voters to decide controversial matters. He noted that the council twice asked voters about imposing parking fees at Fort Williams Park, a proposal that was rejected both times.
Sherman voted to hold the second referendum, he said, because he felt the council — which was leaning toward adopting parking fees — shouldn’t ignore the results of the first one.
In retrospect, he said, he wishes the council had just made the decision.
“My view is, we get elected to serve on the council,” he said, “and that means we ought to decide the issues that come before us, whether they’re easy and not contentious or hard and maybe more contentious.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: