Friday, March 7, 2014
Pro- and anti-secessionists on Peaks Island are squabbling over the timeline for a vote on a proposal to separate the island's government from Portland, and when the new town could start operating.
Rep. Windol Weaver, R-York, has sponsored a bill that would permit secession, and the version provided by the Legislature's drafters set a vote on the issue for June 2012, and the establishment of a new town -- if voters approved -- on July 1, 2013.
But Weaver and supporters of island secession say that timeline was wrong, and the bill was sent back to drafters to set the date for a vote on Jan. 10, 2012, with a new town to be up and running less than six months later.
"It was too stretched out," said Russ Edwards, a member of the Peaks Island Independence Committee and a supporter of secession. "It would have unnecessarily delayed us."
Edwards said the redrafted bill, which was released Friday afternoon, calls for islanders and Portland officials to negotiate the island's share of city debt and then its share of city assets if the secession bill becomes law, which would be 90 days after the Legislature adjourns. It's expected that lawmakers will adjourn by June 1, so negotiations could begin Sept. 1.
Secessionists know what the city expects from those negotiations, since Portland already went through that exercise when Long Island seceded in 1993, Edwards said, and those talks also provide a road map for what Peaks officials should seek. If the two sides can't agree on the numbers, arbitrators would decide.
If islanders approve secession in the vote early next year, he said, there's plenty of time to set up an interim school board, pick interim selectmen and prepare a budget for a town meeting before the new town would be incorporated on July 1, 2012.
Edwards noted that lawmakers set out a different -- and longer -- timeline in the procedure established after Peaks Island first sought legislative approval, unsuccessfully, for secession a few years ago. But that Democratic-controlled Legislature was more interested in hindering secession than in allowing it, he said.
With Republicans, who are more inclined to support the bill, now in control in Augusta, "it's probably the best chance that we've had in a long time" to get a bill through, Edwards said. "We've been mulling this over since 1986."
But Peaks residents who are opposed to secession say the timeline in the bill is rushed and doesn't allow for enough public input before the vote.
"It's a little too fast for me, and it's too fast for most of the islanders," said Lisa Penalver, a spokeswoman for a loose-knit group of secession opponents, the Peaks Alliance.
Secession supporters argue they went through many of the steps lawmakers set out in the last session during the earlier attempt to set a secession vote. And they got a recent opinion from the state Attorney General's Office that the Legislature is not bound by that earlier statute.
Penalver said opponents of separation worry that secession supporters are pushing the issue too hard, too fast.
"It's a coup," she said, "a small fringe group trying to take over the island, and it's very frustrating that they control everything."
Penalver said that beside the split over secession in general, she and other members of the Peaks Alliance worry that supporters will come up with a cost for separation and a proposed initial town budget that is too low and doesn't account for unexpected expenses.
"It's really complicated, but they're presenting it as a very simple endeavor and they're misrepresenting the costs and low-balling them," she said.
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: