Cape Elizabeth residents will vote in November on a change to town rules that would automatically trigger referendums on projects that cost more than $1 million.

The question stems from the proposed Thomas Memorial Library project, which residents also will vote on in November.

Town councilors had been scheduled to vote on the library expansion, which could cost around $8 million, but ultimately decided to put the issue to referendum based largely on feedback from residents who felt they should have a say in a project of that magnitude.

That led to discussion of whether all such expensive projects should have public input.

The Town Council voted 5-2 Monday to put the proposed town charter change on the November ballot. Councilors David Sherman Jr. and Kathy Ray voted against sending the question to voters.

The charter currently allows residents to override single expenditures of more than .05 percent of the town’s state property valuation – currently about $850,000 – but 10 percent of registered voters must sign a petition for an override vote.

The proposed charter change would leave in place residents’ ability to petition to overturn Town Council decisions but would no longer require that process for the large expenditures.

Expenditures of more than $1 million in town money would automatically trigger a referendum unless paying for improvements mandated by state or federal law, or for projects needed because of fire or other similar loss.

Single projects costing less than $1 million that are part of a larger funding package would not be subject to referendum.

Projects large enough to trigger a referendum under the proposed charter change are few and far between, said Town Manager Michael McGovern.

He reviewed town projects done in the past 10 years and found only one that exceeded $1 million: the Shore Road Path.

The $1.03 million path is being built along Shore Road using a combination of town money, private donations and state and federal grants.

Sherman cited the Shore Road Path project in explaining his vote. He said a referendum vote on the path could have derailed the project, which he felt had “overwhelming support” from residents.

Referendums on all large projects could make town government “less agile or nimble” in dealing with issues, he said.

Sherman said he was also hesitant to throw his support behind the referendum question because there was limited council discussion and little public feedback on the issue.

Ray said she, too, would have liked to see more discussion about why the change would be needed.

The council deadline to approve items for the November ballot is Aug. 13.

“I think we need to spend more time on this to think it through,” he said.

“I just felt it was a significant enough change we should put the brakes on and not move forward so quickly.”

Town Council Chairwoman Sarah Lennon said she supports the charter change because she likes to see public involvement in major decisions.

If approved, the charter change would bring the process for town projects in line with the process for school projects, she said.

“Any expenditure for school-related building – no matter what the price – automatically triggers a referendum,” Lennon said.

“It always struck me as a gross inequity.”

 

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian