County charter mulled at forum

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PARIS — A Cumberland County commissioner spoke to Oxford County officials and interested members of the public on Thursday to discuss the idea of forming a county charter.

Malory Shaughnessy said both Oxford and Cumberland counties are divided into three districts, each of which is served by one commissioner. She said when Cumberland County decided to form a charter commission in 2008, two candidates were elected and one person appointed from each district to form the group.

Shaughnessy said the commission is letting communities know about the charter proposals, and the question will go to a vote in November. A charter would outline the functions and responsibilities of the county government. Only two of Maine’s 16 counties, Knox and Aroostook, have charters; other counties operate based on state law.

“It lets you start seeing what services are really needed in the counties,” Shaughnessy said.

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“It seems like it’s an opportunity for [the county] to take greater control of itself,” said Oxford County treasurer Roy Gedat.

Shaughnessy said the commission has found a greater need for county representation. As an example, she said the town of Windham has seven elected representatives for a population of 17,000 while each of the three county commissioners represents about 86,000 people. She said it is also possible that regionalization efforts such as uniform municipal assessments by the county could save money.

Shaughnessy said the commission is temporary, and estimated that it costs about $10,000 to compensate members for mileage, maintain a Web site, and other expenses. She said she did not believe there was any significant downside to the creation of a charter, but past efforts have been defeated in Cumberland County.

“The bottom line is a charter is change, and change is hard,” she said.

State Rep. Terry Hayes of Buckfield said the Oxford County commissioners’ proposal to change the treasurer from an elected to an appointed position, which is allowed by state law, raised questions of whether a charter commission should look at the county government as a whole. Shaughnessy said the Cumberland County treasurer is currently elected, but would change to an appointed position under the proposed charter. Voters will decide whether to change the Oxford County treasurer’s status in the June referendum.

Steve Merrill of Norway, chairman of the Oxford County commissioners, said the question of forming a charter commission first came up in 2002 or 2003. The idea resurfaced in 2008, but was put aside due to matters involving the change in status of the Oxford County Jail to a 72-hour holding facility.

Merrill said the county government positions have evolved into more professional roles with more requirements for positions such as the treasurer and sheriff. He said recent changes in the county government, including retirements, make this an ideal year to look at possible changes to the structure of the county government.

“We have an opportunity here to make some changes, and it’s not just in the treasurer’s office,” Merrill said. “If we wait until we charter, we’re going to miss that window of opportunity.”

Commissioner Caldwell Jackson of Oxford said the filing deadline for people to run for a charter commission would be June, and that doing so this year would give too short a notice. Merrill said the commissioners decide whether to establish a commission, and estimated that it could be done next year.

mlangeveld@sunjournal.com

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