RUMFORD – Residents will have a chance in June to decide how their town should be governed.
Selectmen voted unanimously at a special meeting Thursday night to present a straw poll ballot offering four options:
• retain the current annual town meeting;
• change the method of voting on the the municipal budget at town meeting from a show of hands to a secret ballot;
• eliminate the current annual town meeting in favor of referendum votes on the municipal budget; or
• change the form of government entirely by going to a town council form rather than the selectmen/town meeting form.
The straw vote will take place during the June 13 election.
The decision, on a proposal and motion by Selectman Jolene Lovejoy and seconded by Selectman Mark Belanger, who advocates a referendum form of voting, will show selectmen what direction they should go.
The decision came following a 2-hour session attended by about 20 people, which was consumed by arguments for retaining the current annual town meeting and for changing to a secret ballot referendum.
The proposed change was the result of a petition signed by more than 1,200 residents and presented to the board in January, asking that it be placed before voters in June.
With the agreement to go with a straw poll, a binding vote could be held in November.
Ron Theriault, an advocate for changing to referendum vote, said he was tired of hearing that the annual town meeting was a quaint New England tradition.
“So was bloodletting. We are no longer an agricultural society working from sunrise to sunset. We can change things as we go along,” he said.
Walter Buotte, however, argued that low turnout at the annual town meeting may be the result of residents being satisfied with the way the town is run.
“To say people were disenfranchised because only 136 people came to town meeting (last year) is overly simple. I remember when the auditorium was virtually filled because they were unhappy about something,” he said.
Lovejoy, in making her proposal to give residents a chance to say what they want, said the implications of changing the town meeting format were huge.
“For 200 years this state has been doing business this way. This decision warrants a lot more input than we’ve had. I’d like to see if people really want to do this. People should have choices,” she said.
Resident Joseph Roberts agreed.
“There’s a lot at stake here. I’ve heard too many questions to make a definitive decision. I don’t want us to lock into something that may take years to undo. Do a [straw poll] and get an opinion, then there is time to hash these matters out,” he said.
Town Manager Steve Eldridge said if most people at the straw vote want to change to referendum vote on the budget, then selectmen would work out the details for an article to be voted on Nov. 7.
If the decision in June is to change to a town council form of government, then a charter commission will be needed to rewrite sections of the town’s charter. If people vote to retain the traditional town meeting or add secret ballot votes at the annual town meeting, then no specific action will be needed.
Town lawyer Jennifer Kreckel said selectmen will take the June straw vote, then determine what action to take.