Who makes the decisions in Harpswell? How? When?

Harpswell seems never to be lacking for contentious and confusing issues. At this year’s town meeting, we have another.

At this time, Harpswell voters expected to vote on clear, definitive warrant articles relative to the disposition or further use of the West Harpswell School (WHS) property with accompanying cost estimates and appropriation articles.

Instead, we have a nonbinding, poorly constructed straw vote (Article 3, page 74) confused by a second warrant article placed on the open floor warrant (Article 23, page 80) to raise and appropriate an additional $70,000 for “maintenance, operations and use of the former West Harpswell School property, including building management as well as planning expenses related to future use of the property.”

This warrant article seems to imply that the selectmen intend to “study” the issue and allow interim use at their sole discretion under their solely constructed guidelines for another year or more.

To date, there is no indication that selectmen will bring specific options (including sale or lease) to the voters at any time in the foreseeable future.

Is this what voters expected when they cast their votes to accept transfer of ownership of the WHS property from School Administrative District 75 last August?

Townspeople also appropriated $25,000 to “maintain (the) building through March 2012.” A Reuse Committee had been formed by the selectmen to inform the public of its options prior to that vote.

The “yes” vote supposedly set in motion a series of actions called Decision Process 2, which specifically stated that the “town would establish a process for determining what to do with the building and land.”

That has not happened.

Soon thereafter, selectmen started receiving requests for various uses of WHS and spent a great of time listening to, developing policies for and debating the costs of implementing some or all of these requests. Such use did not seem to be what we, the voters, had intended when we accepted transfer.

On Sept. 23, 2011, I raised the issue to the selectmen indicating that I did not believe that I was “alone in my understanding that the town had agreed to accept the West Harpswell School and pay the costs of maintenance until town meeting in March of 2012. By that time, the selectmen would have set forth detailed options to the voters so that a decision could be made for this property’s use or disposition. No one understood or would have surmised that the selectmen would consider otherwise.”

I further questioned the selectmen’s authority to use the property for such purposes without the sanction of the voters. My concerns were presented to them in writing and in person. There was some discussion of getting a legal opinion.

I am unaware that that ever happened. Staff and selectmen have continued to spend considerable time since then working on individual and group use issues and policies.

No specific process seemed to have evolved as to what questions, if any, should be brought to the voters on the town warrant for this Saturday’s meeting. Ultimately, the selectmen decided to develop a secret ballot, “Nonbinding referendum on West Harpswell School,” (Article 3, page 74) with multiple choices and rankings along with two pages of instructions as to ranking all four options using the numbers  4, 3 ,2 and 1.

Moreover, voters were instructed that “the scores will be announced but no ‘winner’ will be declared. Instead the Board will evaluate the pattern of responses.”

As previously mentioned, the selectmen also placed a second warrant article, Number 23, on the open floor warrant for $70,000 for “maintenance, operations and use of the former West Harpswell School property …” indicating that the selectmen intend to “study” the issue and allow interim use at their sole discretion indefinitely.

There are several problems inherent in this bifurcated secret ballot/floor warrant approach. First, the construction of this hybrid straw poll lists three options (not an exclusive list of possibilities) for keeping the property. It lists only one option for voters who wish to sell the property.

These four choices appear, therefore, to weight the odds heavily in favor of voters wishing to keep the property rather than those wishing to sell.

Straw poll options 1, 2, and 3 all pertain to keeping the building and the point scale preference differential is 9 to 1 (a total of 10 points adding 4, 3, 2 and 1) in favor of keeping West Harpswell School for an indefinite time, for indefinite purposes and at an indefinite cost to taxpayers.

On the other hand, option 4 is the only option that pertains to selling the property, with restrictions to protect the neighborhood (determined by whom?) and has the possibility of only garnering four points at most on any one ballot.

Each ballot would allow six points against sale if said person completely filled out the whole ballot (4 for and 6 against = 10).

In essence, if a voter is for the sale of the property and expresses any second, third or fourth choices therein, he or she is essentially voting against his/her first choices.

The straw poll results will be further distorted if there is no clear winner and the Board of Selectmen evaluates the pattern of responses as stated.

My questions are these:

— What does that mean specifically?

— Which selectman has the experience or training in statistics, probability and/or voting patterns to make any kind of interpretation of the results?

— Does the town have any statistical analyst or staff waiting in the wings to dare to decipher the voters’ intent?

— Will anyone have confidence in whatever results are announced now or later after the selectmen have “evaluated the pattern of responses?”

Statistically speaking, it does not seem correct to place three questions that are favorable to one outcome on a ballot with only one question that is favorable to a substantially different outcome and then have the supposed results interpreted by non-experts.

With this polling form, it is impossible to have an accurate determination of what voters want.

Harpswell has already spent or committed approximately $30,000 including contingency monies. We must now decide if we wish to appropriate an additional $70,000 with no defined outcome(s), deadline(s) or time frame as to when a binding vote may take place.

I urge everyone to think carefully about the WHS issue and make your thoughts known at Saturday’s town meeting. Floor warrant articles are amendable, and appropriation requests can be cut.

We, the voters, need to decide how and when we are going to participate in the decision-making process of our town government and how we are going to achieve the outcome(s) we expect. In order to do that, we need clear information and options.

Katherine Chatterjee of Harpswell is a former member of the Harpswell Board of Selectmen.

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