LEWISTON – City rules that kept opponents of a storm water utility fee from circulating a petition were wrong and need to be changed, according to City Administrator Jim Bennett.
“I’ve gone over this with the city attorney, and this is one place where we just disagree,” Bennett told city councilors Tuesday night. “There may be a valid argument saying otherwise, but I think our ordinances are wrong.”
It’s one of many problems with the city’s rules governing citizen initiatives and referendums, Bennett said. If left unchecked, it could someday disable city government.
“You could essentially have 10 people shut down a major part of our operation,” he said. “And the only way we could correct that is wait for a year or two.”
Bennett said it will be up to councilors to decide if the city ordinances need fixing. He presented a memo to councilors Tuesday that asked six philosophical questions about people’s vetoes and petitions.
Councilors promised to study his memo and be prepared to discuss the matter at a special July 31 council workshop. Councilors agreed to waive their traditional rules for that meeting, giving the public a chance to comment.
The issue came to a head last year, after the city adopted a storm water utility fee to pay for culvert maintenance, street sweeping and storm sewer line projects. A group of 10 citizens started a petition seeking to overturn the fee. The group failed to gather enough signatures to put the storm fee on the November ballot, however.
City ordinances require petitioners to gather 1,000 signatures to put a question on the ballot. According to ordinances, that petition is kept at the city clerk’s office in City Hall. People who want to sign the petition must come to the window and ask for it.
The city charter requires the city to create rules allowing the “…public circulation of petitions,” however. Bennett thinks that means letting supporters take petitions outside of City Hall.
“Someone could make an argument that we are ‘circulating’ the petition by letting people sign it,” Bennett said. “But I don’t think that was the original intent when the charter was written.”
Bennett said councilors need to decide if they want a new ordinance to allow such petitions to be taken door-to-door. They should also talk about the number of petition signatures needed to force a vote and how often those elections could be scheduled.
“If you put it all together, it will take a real effort to clean up this ambiguity, if you don’t want it ultimately decided by lawyers and judges” Bennett said.
It would also require a vote on November’s ballot.
Larry Poulin of 394 Sabattus St. agreed that Lewiston’s rules need to change. Poulin was one of the 10 petitioners who tried to void the storm water fee.
“One of the good things about our system is that it allows for checks and balances on the government’s power,” Poulin said. “These votes are part of that, and those checks and balances need to be preserved. But I agree, they shouldn’t shut down city government.”