Coastal Journal

BRUNSWICK — A group of Brunswick residents has filed an appeal of a court decision that blocked their effort to hold a referendum on the town’s sale of waterfront land on Mere Point.

Brunswick Citizens for Collaborative Government formed after the Brunswick Town Council rejected a petition signed by over 1,100 residents that called for a referendum on the sale of 946 Mere Point Road, a roughly 4-acre waterfront property. The town-owned land was sold after a 5-4 decision by the council, which said it received legal advice that a petition could not influence council decisions or orders.

Justice Lance E. Walker ruled in early August that the petition was moot because the land was sold, but criticized the council for not holding another public hearing after residents filed a petition. The land was sold on June 15 to Daniel and Kathryn Frost of Irvine, California, for $550,000.

The appeal, according to members of Brunswick Citizens for Collaborative Government, is based on their belief that the council acted with the wrong intentions in the face of a petition signed by many people. The town charter states that the council can ignore any petitions that are trying to counteract council “orders,” and that petitions can only affect an “ordinance.”

“We’ve never wavered in our belief that the council acted illegally and wrongly out of hostility to citizen involvement,” said Robert Baskett, a member of the group.

The argument is that the town could simply label anything as an “order” to prevent citizen input.

“Our decision to appeal goes far beyond the council’s decision to sell the Mere Point land. A very basic principle of democracy is at stake. Based on the court’s ruling, the town council can protect every decision it makes from citizen input by simply labeling it an ‘order,’ not an ‘ordinance,'” said Soxna Dice, another group member. “What redress do citizens have if an unforeseen issue arises in the time between council elections, or in the event of a poor decision by the council?”

The group also argues that the town already is protected from “frivolous citizen activism” by the large number of signatures required on petitions. “The right to petition for referendum ballot questions is an honored Maine tradition and an important check and balance on local government,” Baskett said.

The group’s attorney argues that the language of the town’s charter requires that it be read in favor of citizen petitions.

“Our attorney has advised that this decision is not consistent with Law Court precedent, and that an appeal is necessary if the voters of Brunswick are not to be deprived of their right to initiate ordinances,” the group wrote in a statement. “The plain language of the charter, as well as those precedents, require that the Brunswick Charter be read in favor of the right to initiate ordinances, rather than against it.”

Brunswick Town Attorney Stephen Langsdorf stood by his initial recommendation that the town ignore the citizens’ petition.

“My opinion is the same. The Brunswick charter does not allow an order to be overturned by referendum vote,” he said, adding that the idea that the town could name something an order to get it past a petition doesn’t work in the confines of the law. “Ordinances and orders are clearly different. An order is a one-time directive. An ordinance is an ongoing set of rules just like a statute. You cannot just call an ordinance an order.”

For Brunswick Citizens for Collaborative Government, the issue of the Mere Point property at its core is the dismissal of the will of many Brunswick residents.

“A record number of voters signed that petition,” said Dice. “All of those people felt the issue was important enough to allow the town’s citizens to vote on it. After all, we the citizens – not just the Town Council – owned that land.”

Chris Chase can be contacted at:

[email protected]