BETHEL — Ten people attended Wednesday night’s public hearing on the June 8 referendum question that will ask voters whether to contract with the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office for police coverage or spend $200,000 more to keep and upgrade the department.
Most questions during the 30-minute meeting in the Crescent Park School gym centered on why selectmen didn’t abide by the Feb. 9 special town meeting vote.
At that meeting, selectmen were authorized by a 109-89 vote to negotiate and enter into a contract with the county for police coverage.
Instead, a few weeks later, selectmen nullified the Feb. 9 vote by a 3-2 vote, deciding instead to let regular town meeting voters ultimately decide the issue after learning the town hadn’t legally appropriated money for the switch.
Additionally, resident Scott Harlow petitioned for a re-vote, claiming confusion during the Feb. 9 vote.
Selectmen, however, didn’t act on the petition, although at Wednesday night’s meeting, Board of Selectmen Chairman Stanley Howe cited the petition as a reason behind the June 8 referendum.
Town Manager Jim Doar explained the referendum question, which contains two options, each seeking a Yes or No vote, although the ballot tells people to only vote on one option.
Option 1 seeks to upgrade the police department to provide 24/7 law enforcement coverage by Maine Criminal Justice Academy-trained officers at an annual cost of $453,794, and to raise and appropriate that for the first year.
Option 2 seeks to ratify the Feb. 9 vote authorizing selectmen to contract with Oxford County and the sheriff’s office for the same coverage at an agreed upon cost of $295,000 per year for the next three years with the option to extend the contract another two years at a predetermined 2-percent annual increase.
It also seeks to raise and appropriate the $295,000, and to raise and appropriate $8,000 for animal control, and to amend town law to read that there “may” instead of “shall” be a police department upon town meeting vote.
Selectmen and the Budget Committee now recommend approving Option 2.
Residents Craig and Jane Ryerson criticized the board’s dismissal of the Feb. 9 vote, arguing there should only be one option before June 8 voters, that being to appropriate the $295,000 for county coverage.
“I’m not sure why Option 1 is even on there, because at the Feb. 9 meeting, voters chose to go with the county,” Jane Ryerson said. “We should only be voting on the money issue now.”
Howe said three of the five selectmen voted to send the matter to town meeting in June, because “we didn’t know where the money was coming from.”
Selectmen had wanted to use last year’s appropriation, but Town Attorney Geoff Hole told them they couldn’t because voters designated that specifically for the town police department. To do it anyway could spark court action, which if they lost, Howe said selectmen would have been liable for the money.
That’s why the majority opted for the June 8 referendum. Selectmen Dennis Doyon and Jack Cross voted against it, believing the board should honor the Feb. 9 vote.
When Jane Ryerson reiterated her statement, Howe said the Feb. 9 meeting only drew 200 people, whereas the referendum could draw 1,000 voters.
“I know, but you’re going back and changing a vote that was already done,” Jane Ryerson said. “What is the point of coming here and voting if you’re not going to abide by what the people want?”
When Howe mistakenly implied that all selectmen voted not to abide by the vote, Doyon and Cross quickly interrupted, saying they agreed with Ryerson.
“There was clearly plenty of representation,” Doyon said of the Feb. 9 vote. “In good conscience, how this board could ever ask for another special town meeting and not ratify the vote, to me, you can’t do that.”
“How can you do it legally?” Craig Ryerson asked Howe. “You have a special town meeting, the people vote on it … and now, all of a sudden, you’re going to change it?”
Howe attempted to ask him if he would rather have 1,000 people decide the matter than 200, but Craig Ryerson interrupted, saying, “You know what this is? It’s like a bunch of third-graders fighting over a pencil. That’s all it is.”
Later, Doyon clarified Option 1’s $453,794, saying that doesn’t include another $55,000 in benefits for a town police force. That tidbit isn’t on the ballot.
Currently, Bethel has two academy-trained officers, but only one is full-time, Doar said.
Both Doyon and Doar then said that should June 8 referendum voters opt for county coverage and not like it, Bethel can give notice to opt out after 60 days. That proviso also isn’t on the ballot.