AUGUSTA — Minutes after killing a bill that would have given Rumford residents the right to vote on an impending deal with Poland Spring Water Co., lawmakers called everyone back in the room Wednesday morning and hashed out what several deemed a compromise.

But even if that new bill swiftly passes the House and Senate, it doesn’t address the question that sparked hours of testimony last week: whether just three people should get to decide if Rumford sells its water to Poland Spring.

“I’m more confused now than I was before,” Rumford resident Anne Morin said as she left the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology hearing room.

Poland Spring has been scouting Rumford for a new spring site for more than two years and actively testing the water for more than 18 months. It’s in negotiations with the three-member Rumford Water District board to withdraw 100 million gallons of water or more a year from the district’s Milligan Well site. The board, not the public, has authority over all water district decisions.

Poland Spring has offered the district $400,000 annually in water and lease payments.

The top-selling brand of bottled spring water in the country, Poland Spring has nine springs and three bottling plants in Maine. It withdrew 902 million gallons of water in the state last year and is actively looking for a new bottling plant site and springs for the capacity to draw 400 million gallons more yearly. Parent company Nestle Waters North America is one of the largest public companies in the world.

The issue emerged last summer, with concerns voiced about Nestle’s reputation, the health of the local aquifer and more truck traffic.

State Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said she sponsored LD 90, “An Act to Amend the Charter of the Rumford Water District,” to give people a voice in the process.

“It seems a lot of people in Rumford don’t feel listened to and don’t feel like they have a way to be listened to,” said Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the committee co-chairman behind getting lawmakers to reconsider their initial vote Wednesday against giving Rumford residents a voice in the matter.

His compromise: Send a referendum question to Rumford Water District customers asking if they’d like to start voting to elect trustees instead of having them be appointed by selectmen.

The water district has about 1,600 customers, though Rumford has more than 4,300 registered voters, according to the town. 

Trustees are appointed for three-year terms, with one term ending each year. The next term up is that of Harry Burns and it expires July 27.

The vast majority of water district boards in Maine, 74 out of 107, are elected.

“I think it’s probably a fair amendment,” Keim said. “I think it’s not what they’re all looking for and the point of the bill, but I think it definitely does get to the underlying  issue in the bill, which is giving the people increased voice in their town.”

She wasn’t concerned about enough people running for the seats.

“My concern is when that election would happen and the alleged damages that the citizens are complaining about can already happen in that time,” Rep. Jennifer DeChant, D-Bath, said. “If we do nothing, I believe the citizens of Rumford have said, generally speaking, they don’t have access to these people who are appointed.”

After an initial 6-3 vote not to support the bill, with legislators saying it was a local issue, there was a 5-3 vote supporting Berry’s change.

“It’s not the wrong thing to do, but I’m not sure it really helps,” Keim said after the vote.

With its emergency status, the bill needs two-thirds support in both the House and Senate in order to pass.

“I like the idea that they recognize that we need to vote for the water board. The question is, when do we do that, how soon would that be available for us?” Morin, of Rumford, asked.

“People don’t want this particular business deal (with Poland Spring). They don’t have confidence in (water district trustees) to do the deal, and that’s an important consideration. These are people who have done a lot in the town over the years. Why should their swan song be something negative? It should be something positive,” Morin said

James Thibodeau, chairman of the Rumford Water District, said selectmen appoint lots of boards and should keep appointing district trustees.

He was frustrated at the public’s frustration.

“People are crying about the fact that we didn’t let them know it was going on for a couple years, but that’s a privileged thing when any business comes to town, to request that it be kept in executive session because of a competitor (seeing), ‘Oh, what are they doing?'” Thibodeau said. “That’s a given and a proper protocol. We are now in negotiations. We can’t tell (the public) what’s going on with those negotiations, so we’re getting ripped apart by false accusations.”

Numbers being floated in public now aren’t necessarily accurate, he said, but he can’t correct them until any deal is reached.

“There’s been many times that I was on the Board of Selectmen, many times I voted for something that I was personally against, but it was the wish of the people, which I’ve always followed the wishes of the people, not my own personal feelings,” Thibodeau said.

Last week, district trustees announced they would defer action on executing an agreement with Poland Spring until after the June 13 town meeting.

The schedule proposed in January called for an agreement May 10. The revised schedule calls for a proposed agreement posted by April 5, a meeting on it May 10 and an agreement executed in late June or early July.

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Lisa Keim
Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield

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