AUBURN — After nearly an hour of public urging, city officials voted to keep Auburn's five separate polling places rather than having one central location as approved in the budget passed in May.
"You can spend millions of dollars to build a garage . . . but you worry about a few thousand dollars to preserve democracy?" questioned James Williams, the first to speak during Monday's public hearing on the issue.
Williams was one of several residents who addressed council in hopes of urging elected officials to abandon their decision to close the city's five polling stations — one in each ward — and send all voters to one polling place. Locations under consideration included East Auburn Baptist Church off Park Avenue and the Rollerdrome in New Auburn.
"What you're trying to do here is discourage voters," Williams said. "I like to see the people I'm voting for where I vote for them."
Another point residents returned to again and again was the strong sense of civic mindedness and community that people experienced heading out to their neighborhood polls. Williams, for example, stressed the importance of young students seeing adults cast their ballots at their schools as a way to encourage the next generation of voters.
Councilors held the public hearing prior to voting on the proposal because the city is required to certify its polling places 90 days before the November election. That date would be Thursday.
"This has been a very, very difficult budget year," City Manager Glen Aho said. "I think the City Council is going to make a good decision, but they're going to make it knowing that they've exhausted every option."
Aho said he proposed consolidating the polling locations not because he thought it would make for a better democratic process, but because it was a matter of cost savings for the city. He said last week that combining polling places would save the city about $3,000.
But Shelia Desgrosseilliers disagreed. The Auburn poll worker said she requested all the information about the finances involved in consolidating to one location, crunched the numbers, and could only come up with a cost savings of around $1,600.
Desgrosseilliers added that another point councilors were missing was the fact that for many older residents, going out to the polls twice a year is something of a social event. She said that poll workers see it all the time where voters end up spending extra time at the polls catching up with friends and neighbors they don't see very often.
About half way through the public hearing, one resident who supported keeping the separate polling places challenged Mayor Richard Gleason for seeming as though he were not taking the concerns of his constituents seriously enough. The man argued that Gleason was smirking during resident comments and said that such behavior offended him.
"The cost savings doesn't compare with the value for what we get for the money we save," said Councilor Belinda Gerry, one of two at-large representatives on the council.
Gerry asked that council vote to keep the separate polling locations and pay the additional costs out of the fund established to explore the option of combine the city's fire and police departments. Aho said the move would not have a major impact on the overall project, which is expected to take more than a year.
In the end, councilors voted down the option of keeping the separate polling locations and paying for it out of the joint services fund. Then they voted to keep the separate locations and have Aho find the money to fund the move.