Fort Fairfield town clerk rejects voter petition 3 times

3 years ago

By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli, Special to The Star-Herald

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine – The Fort Fairfield town clerk rejected a notarized petition three times last week that was aimed at curtailing increases in the newly passed Fiscal Year 2021-2022 Fort Fairfield municipal budget. 

And the 451 registered voters who signed the petition are being denied their First Amendment rights to petition and vote as outlined in the town charter, members of the petition committee said.

“This move, which is in opposition to the town’s own charter, essentially strips the townspeople of the opportunity to make their voices heard,” the petition committee wrote in a letter hand-delivered to town councilors this week. “Denouncing this petition is a declaration by the officers of Fort Fairfield, that the opinions and the voices of the townspeople are not relevant. This action is shameful and belittling to those who work so hard to keep the lights on in this town.”

Pointing to randomly fluctuating budget deficits and an EMS price tag nearly four times higher than surrounding town EMS services, the voters asked the council to reconsider these items following months of wrangling with town officials and the council over several controversial items in the budget. 

Nonetheless, after collecting nearly 100 more signatures than the required 355, the petition committee’s 35-page document of notarized signatures was rejected.

Initially, Town Clerk Billie Jo Sharpe said she could not accept the document because there was no notary seal on the signature pages, despite an authorized notary stamp, signature and date. 

In Maine, it is legal for Notaries Public to use either an embossing seal or a stamp with their name and notary expiration date, according to the Maine Secretary of State.

Sharpe rejected the petition a second time in a letter to the committee, stating that some signatures on the petition were collected prior to the budget vote and that the signature sheets did not have the petition language attached to each signature sheet.

In a letter sent on behalf of the petition committee, the Presque Isle law firm Bemis & Rossignol responded to Sharpe.

“There are no dates on the petitions for each signature because there is no requirement in the town charter for dates to be provided for signatures,” the letter reads, adding that the town charter has no provision for the town clerk to investigate the signatures by contacting residents on the sheet, but rather the clerk is to compare the names on the petition to the current voter registration list.

Additionally, the law firm’s letter explains that the petition committee removed the individual petition descriptions from each signature sheet prior to handing it in to the town clerk to make it one document as the charter specifies. But to confirm, the members of the committee also signed an affidavit certifying that each signature sheet contained the specific petition information for each signer to read.

Sharpe did not respond to the law firm’s letter. Instead, the third rejection letter was identical to the second rejection letter with the exception of a new date. 

“They should just burn the town charter because it has no meaning,” committee member Sharon Ouellette said, adding that several town residents are saying the same thing. “It wouldn’t have mattered what we did, they would find some reason to reject it.”

As outlined in the town charter, the petition committee has the right to ask the council directly to reconsider its decision.

And on Monday, the petition committee hand-delivered a letter, along with the petition signatures, to the town councilors, sharing that they had new information for the council to consider that was gathered after the June 24 budget approval.

“Please know that citizens are speaking and speaking clearly. We trust you are still listening … This town is not in agreement with a budget increase that comes at the expense of raised taxes,” the letter reads. “The fact that our townspeople’s first amendment rights to petition and to vote are being denied has a far greater consequence than what is apparent within the boundaries of our small community.”

The committee urged the council to do the right thing and respect the requests of the residents.

But members of the council were told by Town Manager Andrea Powers that it would be illegal for them to open the letter, even though the town council does not report to Powers. 

“We were told that if we review any material of this petition, it could exempt us from voting,” Town Councilor Robert Kilcollins said on Tuesday, adding that he did not open the packet delivered by the committee as Powers requested because he did not want to jeopardize his right to vote on the items in question. “I’ve served on the town council for 14 years and I never ran into anything of such. This is the first time anything like this has come to me.”

Nonetheless, the town council has the right to amend or repeal any ordinance previously adopted and the right to investigate the affairs of the town, according to the town charter. 

Powers did not return calls or emails regarding the letter from the petition committee. 

A spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association said that organization was unable to comment on the matter.

“This is the kind of ultra-local issue that we as a statewide organization can’t really weigh in on because the details can be so important, and we have no idea what the details are,” Eric Conrad said.

Kilcollins said he had no idea if the information about opening the letter was accurate and that he was seeking legal advice on the matter.

“We work for the community,” Kilcollins said, adding that he was sure more than the 451 voters who signed the petition are concerned about the budget and town spending. “We do not work for the town office.”

The town council is considering meeting with the committee to review the new information, Kilcollins said.

“We could amend the budget at that time,” he added.

Still, the committee is seeking alternative legal avenues, including having already contacted the Maine American Civil Liberties Union and a local attorney regarding the next steps to take.