Discussions on several fronts in Chebeague secession

By Jaime McLeod
CUMBERLAND ­ A day after the Town Council voted to oppose secession by Chebeague Island, negotiators from both sides began meeting Nov. 29 to hammer out an agreement that protects both island and mainland interests.

Meetings will be scheduled twice a week until an agreement is reached, Town Manager Bill Shane said. Shane is one of three representatives for the town, along with Councilor George Turner and Council Chairman Bill Stiles.

Representatives from both sides declined to comment on specific topics discussed.

Shane said it will be difficult to gauge the progress of negotiations because so many of the points to be discussed are closely related. If, at any point, an agreement can't be made on one issue, negotiators may have to go back and rehash parts they believed they'd finished, he said.

Topics of discussion are expected to include the division of capital assets, how to handle shared debt and the debate over the inclusion of 16 other Casco Bay Islands in the proposed secession territory.

"I think it's going very well. We've been having very amicable conversations," said Beverly Johnson, one of Chebeague's negotiators.

Secession representatives will also meet with negotiators from School Administrative District 51 to discuss issues of primary interest to the district. The first of those meetings took place on Tuesday.

Though state law does not require islanders to negotiate with the district, secessionists decided to comply with a request by the school's attorney, Bruce Smith, that the district have a seat at the table.

Secession representatives said they will negotiate with the school representatives on areas that are of exclusive interest to the district, and islanders hired Bob Lyman, former superintendent Freeport schools, to help them navigate through their separation from the district.

Some School Board members are less than satisfied with the district's role in the process.

"I was disappointed that the district will not be a part of the general negotiations. I think there is a lot of overlap between the issues of interest to the town and the issues of interest to the district," said board member John Aromando.

During the board's Monday night meeting, members voted unanimously on a set of guidelines for negotiations. The board agreed it will not oppose secession if islanders can mitigate potential negative effects on the education of district students, the district's long-term financial obligations, including debt and lease agreements, and the governance structure of the board.

The guidelines further stipulate that board members will not be party to any agreement that results in a tax increase for residents of Cumberland or North Yarmouth and that district assets must be divided fairly.

Betts Gorsky, chairwoman of the School Board, said Monday night that state Rep. Terrence McKenney, a Cumberland Republican, has drafted a bill for the Legislature that favors secessionist interests.

McKenney said he has done nothing of the sort, but drafted only a boilerplate legislation, meant to be a framework for a future agreement. Right now, he said, the bill only describes what is required of both parties, according to state statute.

Though negotiations are only beginning, McKenney said some form of a bill had to be crafted now in the event that both sides are ready for secession to be voted on during the next legislative session.

In order for that to happen, an agreement between the town and the secession representatives would have to be reached by February, at the latest, McKenney said.

If either side tries to push the question in the legislature before a satisfactory agreement is reached, the issue will likely die.

"A lot of people don't fully understand the legislative process," McKenney said. "The Legislature is not going to finish the product for them."

In the weeks leading up to the council's vote to oppose secession, Aromando urged councilors not to allow the town's interests to be usurped by lawmakers in Augusta, but McKenney said he couldn't imagine a situation in which the Legislature would parse out disputed assets.

"We just don't have the job description or the arbitrators to be in the business of doing that," he said.

North Yarmouth impact

In addition to meeting with the school and town, island representatives also visited North Yarmouth selectmen during their meeting Tuesday night. Numbers presented by Shane during an October public hearing on secession suggested that the small town, which shares SAD 51 with Cumberland, could suffer greater tax impacts than Cumberland if Chebeague Island secedes, because its proportion within the district would increase.

Though the islanders had no hard numbers on what the actual impact on North Yarmouth taxpayers would be, selectmen expressed gratitude for the visit.

"To me, as a member of this board, it shows that you are concerned about the ripples that are going to go out and affect North Yarmouth," Selectman Jim Moulton said.

Selectmen were invited to a Wednesday night meeting, conducted by Jim Rier from the Maine Department of Education, on how the state calculates funding for Essential Programs and Services. The meeting, after The Forecaster's deadline, was intended to clarify questions about the potential tax impacts of secession on Cumberland and North Yarmouth property owners.

Jaime McLeod can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or jmcleod@theforecaster.net.
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