Cumberland council opposes Chebeague Island secession

By Jaime McLeod
Five Chebeague Island secession representatives ­ Dave Stevens, left, Beverly Johnson, Mark Dyer, Mabel Doughty and Jeff Putnam ­ ask Cumberland town councilors Monday to reconsider their decision to vote on the secession issue before negotiations have begun.

McLeod photo
CUMBERLAND ­ In a move intended to give the town the upper hand in upcoming negotiations, town councilors Monday night came down against the proposed secession of Great Chebeague Island and 16 other Casco Bay islands.

Six councilors voted to oppose secession. Only Councilor Donna Damon, a resident of Chebeague Island, voted to allow it.

The vote came approximately three weeks after an Election Day referendum in which residents of the proposed secession territory cast their ballots overwhelmingly in favor of separating from the town.

The secession movement gained momentum last February, after School Administrative District 51 board members discussed the possibility of reducing the already tiny Chebeague Island School, a kindergarten through fifth-grade school that serves the island's 22 elementary school students, to one classroom. Under the proposal, fourth- and fifth-grade students would have been transported to the mainland.

Secessionists also cited concerns that rising property taxes would force middle-class families from the island, threatening the island's surivial as a year-round community. If the island remains part of Cumberland, many of its property owners could face a tax increase of about 31 percent during the next assessment, because homes on the island are estimated to be assessed at only about half of their actual values.

State secession law requires the Town Council to vote on whether to accept secession before the question moves to the state Legislature, but does not provide a specific timeline for when the vote must take place. The vote to oppose secession means negotiations will be placed in the hands of an independent mediator for up to six months, until the sides reach an agreement.

Councilor Jeff Porter introduced the motion to set Monday as the date for the secession vote during the council's Nov. 14 meeting, stating that an early vote opposing secession will protect the town's interests during negotiations.

During that meeting, Councilor George Turner and Chairman Bill Stiles were chosen as negotiators for the town, but no meetings between to the two sides took place in the intervening weeks.

Several people associated with the secession movement, including Herb Maine, president of the Chebeague Island Community Association; Peter Lowe, the Lewiston attorney hired by CICA to explore the educational ramifications of secession, and the island's five secession representatives ­ Dave Stevens, Mabel Doughty, Beverly Johnson, Mark Dyer and Jeff Putnam ­ urged councilors to table the vote Monday.

Maine said he doesn't believe the outcome of the vote will have any real impact on negotiations, but still urged councilors against taking it. He said the council's desire to seek tactical advantage in the process brings an "adversarial tone" to the negotiating table.

Lowe said voting on secession so early in the process is "clearly premature" and accused councilors of vacating the high ground.

Porter strongly disagreed with suggestions that a vote opposing secession would taint future negotiations.

"I just find it amazing that what we're doing is represented as somehow inappropriate or not taking the moral high ground. All we're doing is exactly what Chebeague did. We're taking a vote. This is not personal," said Porter, who added that he will not vote in favor of secession until the other 16 islands are removed from the proposed secession territory.

Councilor Steve Moriarty initially voted against scheduling Monday night's vote, cautioning his fellow councilors against acting without more solid information. But he said his only choice once the vote came up was to vote against secession. He told secessionists that a motion to table the vote would not have passed and said a vote in favor of secession would be imprudent without further negotiations.

Moriarty downplayed the significance of Monday night's vote and said it was only the first in what could turn out to be an ongoing series of votes as negotiations progress.

Jaime McLeod can be reached

at 781-3661 ext. 113 or