Board wrestles with fireworks issue
KENNEBUNK — Depending on who one asks, Kennebunk selectmen may or may not have voted to recommended residents adopt a fireworks ordinance that will be on the annual town meeting warrant in June.
Selectman Blake Baldwin abstained from the April 11 decision, citing a belief that he and his peers should leave the decision to voters and not appear to sway minds with an endorsement listed alongside the referendum question on the June 13 ballot.
“I’ve become very fascinated by what happened a couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C. with the health care bill and the difficulty that the Congress had in pulling that together, and I suddenly became very proud of our town meeting form of government, because it seems to me that it’s the last true form of democracy that we have left and all of a sudden I became a big believer in the way we do things [here],” Baldwin said.
“I know we have 19 enumerated rights [in the town charter], but I don’t see anywhere in [it] where recommending things to the voters is one of our obligations,” Baldwin said.
At first Selectmen Deborah Beal and Christopher Cluff agreed, saying they thought selectmen were only bound to offer a recommendation on articles to spend public money. But Town Clerk Merton Brown took the podium to say selectmen are required by state law to weigh in on new ordinances, as well.
“Title 30-A says there should be a recommendation,” Brown said.
A review of Title 30-A by the Post did not turn any requirement for the wording of municipal ordinance votes other than that, “The subject matter of the proposed ordinance shall be reduced to the question: ‘Shall an ordinance entitled ‘___’ be enacted?’”
Title 30-A only seems to require that “municipal officers shall certify one copy of the proposed ordinance to the municipal clerk at least seven days before the day of [town] meeting.”
As Beal and Cluff noted, state law does say a warrant article on “appropriation of money by the municipality ... must be accompanied by a recommendation of the municipal officers.”
That recommendation also may include the vote of a separate budget board, if one exists, as it does in Kennebunk. Meanwhile, “if the action affects the school budget, a recommendation by the school board shall be printed in addition to those of the municipal officers and the budget committee, if any,” the law reads.
Also in Title 30-A, municipal planning committees are empowered to “make recommendations to the municipal legislative body regarding the adoption and implementation of the [growth management] program or amended program.”
But irrespective of any legal requirement, Brown also said Kennebunk voters have come to expect a recommendation from selectmen printed alongside any warrant article for a new or amended ordinance.
“I can tell you from my perspective of being at the voting place, the citizens of Kennebunk want to see a recommendation from this group [of selectmen] because they feel that you know far more about it than they do,” he said.
And that’s where the confusion and conflicting interpretations of the intent of the April 11 board vote came into play, as Baldwin continued to opine against making any suggestion to residents of they should vote.
During board debate, as others were speaking, Town Manager Michael Pardue quietly pointed out to Baldwon that the actual motion to be voted on, as printed on the meeting agenda, was only to accept the item for placement on the town meeting warrant.
The agenda read, “If the Board wishes to place a recommendation on this article, the motion could be as follows: MOTION: To recommend acceptance of this article.”
So, Baldwin turned his mic back on and rejoined the conversation.
“Mike just pointed out to me the language, and language is very important,” he said. “And, so, what it says is that the motion is to accept the article, not endorse. If accepting it means we are accepting it for the purpose of putting it before the legislative body, that’s fine with me. But I’ll bet you a dollar to a doughnut most people would take acceptance as meaning endorsement.”
“I think you’re absolutely right,” board Chairman Dick Morin said.
However, while the motion was only for “acceptance of this article,” Pardue’s agenda memo, read into the record by Morin when introducing the topic, said that, when listed on the town meeting warrant, it will read: “Selectmen recommend acceptance of this article by a vote of __ in favor, __ absent.”
Attempts to reach Pardue for clarification were unsuccessful.
If the motion was indeed only to accept the article, selectmen had already done that. On March 15 the board voted unanimously on a motion “to send the proposed Use of Consumer Fireworks Ordinance to the annual town meeting on June 13.”
In an April 15 response via email, Morin said he took the vote to be one in favor of asking voters to adopt the fireworks ordinance.
“The board has, during my tenure, always voted on warrant articles, which does serve as a barometer for most/many voters,” Morin wrote. “I have received feedback that the board of selectmen need to step up and lead, then have received other feedback similar to Baldwin’s comments.
“We are not a council form of government, but we are leaders of the community who have a responsibility to advance what we believe is best for the community,” Morin said.
At the April 11 meeting, Ted Trainer rose from the audience to speak, saying that, with him, at least, Baldwin would lose his dollars-to-doughnuts bet. Most voters would take “recommend acceptance” as a selectboard endorsement for passage, he said. But Trainer also backed up Brown by saying he expects and wants that board vote on the warrant, and that the lack of it would actually be more likely to influence his vote.
“As Joe Voter, I very much appreciate the recommendation, whether you call it acceptance, or authorization,” he said. “I have faith and trust in the selectmen that they have looked at something carefully. I very much value their recommendation. If I read the ordinance on my own and say, “I don’t like it,” I’ll vote differently, but when I come into the voting booth and I see, gee, the selectmen didn’t made a recommendation on this, I’d say, ‘Well, I wonder why? There must be something I don’t understand.’ And then a little element of doubt creeps in.”
Meanwhile, Beal said her concern was that the notice placed on the warrant did not go far enough, that in addition to saying selectmen “recommend acceptance,” the ballot language should also include a primer on exactly what the new rules would be, and/or just why selectmen think the ordinance should be adopted.
“If people have not done their research before they get to the [voting] booth, they don’t know what they are voting on,” she said. “When they get there, they don’t have the materials. They’re not going to be able to read the ordinance.”
However, state law does say a proposed ordinance, if less than 10 pages in length, must he posted, “in the manner provided for town meetings.” It also says the town clerk must maintain the copy certified by the municipal offers, “as a public record and shall make copies available for distribution to the voters from the time of certification.
Also, state law requires that, “Copies shall be made available at the town meeting.” In the case of a referendum-style town meeting such as the one employed in Kennebunk, that would mean making copies of the proposed ordinance available for review at the polling stations.
Still, Beal said she would vote against accepting the ordinance.
“It’s not that I don’t want to endorse this,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t want it to make it, it’s just the way that it’s blanketed on there, there’s no research, there’s no background. That’s my problem with it. It’s not that I don’t care.”
Baldwin also said that his concern about selectmen offering a recommendation to voters also should not be take as evidence of him not caring about the issues.
“I’m agnostic about a lot of things that come before us,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t care. I care deeply about people who are bothered by fireworks. But I also appreciate the other point of view — nobody wants Kennebunk to become No-fun-town, U.S.A., which is what people are already beginning to say at Dunkin’ Donuts in the morning. It’s just that I don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other. What I do have strong feelings about is giving the legislative body an opportunity to vote on things. But I don’t know why our recommendation is required.”
“We don’t have to vote on whether we endorse it or not, just that we accept putting it on the ballot,” Beal said, echoing Pardue.
Meanwhile, one member of the board championed voting advice given by selectmen.
“I think we should absolutely vote on this. We should take a stand,” Selectman Dan Boothby said. “The voters, they don’t always go with us. If they don’t like our stand, they’ll let us know. They’ll tell us. But they want to know that we’ve sat here, we’ve listened, and we’ve gone over all the nuts and bolts. They take our recommendation seriously. I think it’s a really, really important step. They don’t have to listen to it, but I think it’s important for us to make our voice known.”
“So, when we vote on things, we are endorsing, rather than merely agreeing to put it before the legislative body — is that what this has become?” Baldwin asked.
“That’s how it’s generally taken, yes,” Beal said.
“And we’ve worked on this for over a year,” Boothby said. “We’ve had meetings. We’ve had subcommittee meetings. We’ve had all kinds of crazy meetings. We’ve listened. People have had a chance to come before is. I think it’s now our time to sat how we feel, one way or another.”
“But we say that when we go in the ballot booth, as residents,” Baldwin said. “The fact that we’ve worked on it for a year just means that we’ve vetted and that we’ve put together a proposal for the legislative body.
At least one member of the board seemed to fall closer to Baldwin’s view than Boothby’s, as Ed Karytko indicted there were not as many meetings on the topic as Boothby described. Although selectmen have entertained complaints about firework almost from the day they became legal to own and use in 2012, with a new surge in contacts coming after last year’s July 4 holiday — prompting board conversations of a possible intervention — the changeover in town managers last fall put the issue on the back burner, temporarily. Pardue did not present the first draft of the proposed ordinance to selectmen until their Feb. 28 meeting. Comments at that session prompted some revisions, but Karytko said he might have put the draft through more of a wringer if he’d thought the item would go to voters with his stamp of approval attached to it.
“I just don’t feel comfortable that we have the information. Because this was going to voters, I didn’t feel there was any need to have a special workshop on fireworks so we really understood what all the ramifications were,” he said.
“I, too, am pretty agnostic to fireworks,” Cluff said. “But I feel like we represent the community and for the most part, most people that I’ve heard from, they’ve said, “We want this.” So, I’ll vote for this for that reason.”
The final vote to accept the fireworks ordinance, which some board members also took as their way of recommending to voters that it be adopted at the June referendum, was 4-1-1.
If adopted by voters, the new fireworks ordinance would limit the use of fireworks to two days per year, July 4 and Dec. 31, from 9 a.m. until 12:30 a.m. the following day. Residents would be able to shoot off consumer fireworks on those two days only after obtaining a permit from the fire department.
Following the first reading of the proposal Feb. 28, at which Beal “vehemently” objected to the new limits, a provision was added allowing residents to also take out two additional permits per year, “based on good cause shown” to “commemorate special occasions.”
Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.