September 14, 2013

Proposal would reduce Old Orchard council back to five

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Old Orchard Beach voters may face a November vote to reduce the Town Council by two members, a move opponents say is an emotional reaction to a contentious seven months with a larger council that ended in a recall election.

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"This board is a very cohesive board. It's hard to make an argument to reduce it to five when we have this council," says Shawn O'Neill, council chairman.

The Town Council will hold a public hearing and vote Tuesday night on whether to send to referendum a proposed charter amendment that would reduce the council to five from seven members. Residents in 2011 narrowly approved the increase from five to seven councilors.

The council also is considering sending to referendum a charter amendment to eliminate term limits put in place in 2011. Voters approved implementing a seven-consecutive-year term limit by a 2-to-1 margin.

During the first seven months with a larger council, the board was embroiled in a contentious and emotional battle after a majority of councilors voted to fire the town manager. The fallout of that decision resulted in a recall election that removed six of seven councilors from office.

Council Chairman Shawn O'Neill said some councilors have heard repeatedly from residents who don't believe the seven-member setup is working and, given the 12-vote margin in 2011, want to vote on the issue again.

"(Some residents) think it's a failure because of the rough and bumpy ride with seven members," said vice chairman Bob Quinn, the only councilor to hold on to his seat during the recall.

Both Quinn and O'Neill say voters should decide the size of the council and that they can live with the outcome whichever way it goes. O'Neill recognizes reducing the council by two members may be a tough sell to people who see the new Town Council working well together.

"This board is a very cohesive board. It's hard to make an argument to reduce it to five when we have this council," O'Neill said.

John Bird, who served as vice chairman of the Charter Review Commission that recommended the 2011 changes, said the increase in councilors was intended to increase diversity of opinions, get more people involved and avoid situations where the majority of councilors would be elected at the same time. He believes the push to reduce the size of the council is a hasty reaction to personality conflicts faced by the previous seven-member council.

"Right now, the current Town Council seems to be working well," he said. "I can't get anyone to give me a valid reason (to go back to five). They just say, 'It was bad, let's go back.' It's an emotional reaction."

Councilor Jay Kelley, who was elected in June to replace a recalled town councilor, opposes changing the number of councilors and says the town needs to give it more time to see if a seven-member council works well for the town.

"I know there was some opposition to the way things were being run when there were seven here before, but I think it's working with this seven now," he said. "As the old saying goes, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"

If the charter amendment is approved, each of the five councilors would serve a two-year term. Currently, six seats are for three-year terms and one is for a one-year term.

 

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@pressherald.com

 

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