Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Council opposes island secession

By TREVOR MAXWELL, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

CUMBERLAND - Three weeks after Chebeague Island residents overwhelmingly voiced their desire to break away from Cumberland, town councilors dealt the secession movement a setback Monday. The council's 6-1 vote against the plan probably means the process will be long and arduous, officials said. Secession remains possible, given the solidarity among islanders, but it could take longer and be rockier than some had hoped.

Councilors had few choices Monday. They could have endorsed the secession idea, sending it straight to legislators in Augusta, who make the final decision. And they could have tabled the vote for a later date. But in the end they voted against secession, a move that gives the town time to study the impacts and to negotiate a possible split with secession leaders.

Now town officials and islanders must sit down at the bargaining table, where a bunch of thorny issues await. How much money would islanders owe Cumberland for debt retirement? Who would own the 16 small islands surrounding Chebeague? How much would tax bills on the mainland increase if the island secedes?

If initial talks fall apart, a mediator will be brought in and the sides would have up to six months to find common ground.

Councilor Stephen Moriarty said he is not against islanders, but it would be premature to endorse secession without studying the full impacts.

"Because I'm not prepared to go straight to the Legislature, I think a no vote" is the only rational decision, Moriarty said. "I'm convinced there is going to be at least one other vote, and maybe more along the way."

In the Nov. 8 ballot question in Cumberland, 86 percent of islanders voted to cut ties with the town, with 246 in favor and 41 opposed. On the mainland, though, 53 percent voted against a Chebeague secession, with 1,357 in favor and 1,507 opposed.

Islanders began their movement for self-government this spring. Proposed cuts to the island elementary school worried many residents, who see the school as vital to the town's long-term viability.

After 184 years as one town, it's clear that the past year has strained relations. At the public hearing before Monday's vote, Chebeague resident Dave Stevens spoke on behalf of the secession leaders.

"Fiduciary responsibility is not just a monetary responsibility, it has to do with trust," Stevens said. "It has to do with making moral and fair decisions.

"It's right to maintain that community and its way of life," he said of the island.

Stevens urged the council at least to table the vote, giving a signal that negotiations could begin in good faith and on a positive note.

Herb Maine, president of the Chebeague Island Community Association, and Peter Lowe, an attorney representing that group, also spoke. Lowe asked councilors to table the vote or abstain. By choosing to vote against secession this early in the process, Lowe said, councilors have departed from the "high ground."

Donna Damon, the councilor from Chebeague, was the lone "yes" vote. She was concerned that other councilors were using the vote to gain a tactical advantage over islanders during negotiations.

"I have a terrible feeling in my gut" about the way talks will proceed, Damon said.

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: tmaxwell@pressherald.com