RUMFORD — Members of the new citizens’ activist group, Save Rumford, ran afoul of state law and town officials on Wednesday while protesting the proposed municipal budget outside Town Hall.

The morning’s peaceful leafleting and picketing effort by the group, which supports a vote against the town budget, came to an abrupt halt when Town Manager Carlo Puiia told them to leave the area, member Phil Blampied said Thursday in a news release.

With absentee balloting already underway for the June 11 town budget referendum, Puiia cited state election law that considers the Town Hall a polling place, Blampied, one of the leafleting organizers, said.

The law states, “For the 45 days preceding an election, during the hours when the town clerk’s office is open and may be conducting absentee voting, that the display or distribution of any advertising material intended to influence a voter’s decision regarding a candidate or question on the ballot for that election is prohibited within the clerk’s office and on public property within 250 feet of the entrance to the building in which the town clerk’s office is located.”

Blampied said Puiia and Town Clerk Beth Bellegarde came out of the Municipal Building and used measuring tape to mark a distance of 250 feet from Town Hall. He said one mark was located on the sidewalk across from Rite Aid Pharmacy; the other on the sidewalk in front of Key Bank.

Blampied, who filmed the encounter and made it available on YouTube and Save Rumford’s website at www.saverumford.com, accused Puiia of using an “election law technicality” to suppress the budget protest.

“The town manager has regrettably demonstrated more interest in election law technicalities than in free speech,” Blampied said.

Town Manager Puiia disagreed. He said he was merely ensuring that the group followed the law when picketing.

“I believe it all stems from the absentee ballot process,” he said. “The town clerk’s office becomes a polling place, so state law mandates that no one be allowed to influence a voter.

“So it was never intended at all to oppose their stance,” Puiia said of Wednesday’s actions. “It’s just that we have to comply with state law.”

He said he and Bellegarde measured the distance so they would know where picketers are allowed to protest.

“Again, people may disagree with the state law, but we have to abide by that,” Puiia said.

Len Greaney, Save Rumford’s treasurer, said Thursday morning in Auburn that the Save Rumford Committee has authorized volunteers to carry campaign signs to encourage Rumford voters to vote no for all monetary budget articles.

“This activity comes on the heels of our discontent with the select board and the Finance Committee’s reluctance to create a reasonable FY 2013-2014 budget,” he said in an email.

Greaney said he read the state law that Puiia cited.

“Although the clerk’s office does not yet have a voting booth, I prefer to accept the general concept of preventing proactive influence within that 250-foot buffer,” he said.

“One could interpret the law differently, but I believe our ‘Save Rumford’ volunteers want to follow the loosely-defined legal footing.”

Even though Save Rumford formed last month, Greaney said the group’s view has not changed for the past eight years.

“Our Rumford service budgets are far too robust for a small town,” Greaney said. “The budget can be redone with a strategic approach to reduce spending. Many of our taxpayers cannot pay another 10 to 30 percent property tax, which is on the horizon if Rumford doesn’t reduce their municipal spending.”

Greaney said the group is operating its “Save Rumford” campaign to help each taxpayer, including the paper mill.

Blampied said the group returned Thursday to picket from 8 a.m. to noon. They were met on the street by Town Clerk Beth Bellegarde, who told them exactly where she considered the 250-foot marks to be, he said.

As planned, the group then conducted its informational picket and distribution of leaflets while remaining outside the 250-foot perimeter defined by Bellegarde, Blampied said.

Then during the protest, one of the leafleters was approached by a Rumford police detective, “who briefly but aggressively questioned her from his cruiser about why she was there,” he said.

He said the woman was standing outside the 250-foot perimeter “and doing nothing but quietly leafleting and holding a sign.”

Subsequently, Save Rumford member Frank DiConzo filed a complaint about the officer at Puiia’s office, Blampied said.

He said the group intends to continue its picketing efforts.

Save Rumford evolved from an open public meeting last month at Sam’s Restaurant that drew a crowd of residents concerned about the level of spending by town government.

From that meeting, former Selectman Mark Belanger launched an effort to put a tax cap ordinance on the election ballot.

When that effort was blocked by an opinion from town attorney Jennifer Kreckel, Belanger and supporters organized as Save Rumford and began a campaign to urge a vote against all budget items in the June election.

With no other option, Blampied said the group is now advocating a “no” vote on the entire budget to force the town to lower proposed spending.

If voters reject the budget, the town will need to offer a lower budget to a special town meeting.

Blampied said Save Rumford will continue to seek a budget cap ordinance later in the year, following attorney Kreckel’s latest ruling that a charter amendment will be needed, as well.

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