PARIS — The majority of the Paris Board of Selectmen agreed to send a citizens’ petition to the town’s attorney to restore funding to the Fire Department and determine whether or not it is a “ping-pong petition.”
At the Monday, Aug. 28 selectmen’s meeting, the board voted 4-1 to send Budget Committee member Richard Merz’s petition to the town’s attorney to restore the $145,629 from the Fire Department’s budget that was cut at annual town meeting in June. Voting for the measure were Chairman Scott Buffington, Randy Brackett, John Andrews and Gary Vaughn. Voting against was Vice Chairman Chris Summers.
Merz handed in his petition with 275 signatures – 245 of which were valid – at the previous selectmen’s meeting on Aug. 14.
“When I read this there is really nothing new from what we voted on on June 17,” Buffington said. “I also can’t discount Mr. Merz went around to gather 275 signatures.”
Buffington referred to a Maine Municipal Association document that refers to the 1990 court case of Inhabitants of the Town of Vassalboro v. Frederick & Camille Denico.
It reads, “The significance of the decision is that it appears to be the first by any Maine court of record to suggest that municipal officers need not permit the ‘ping-ponging’ of referendum issues back and forth by a minority faction of dissatisfied voters. The municipal officers, it appears, can reasonably conclude that the first valid vote on an issue will be the only vote on to issue.”
At June town meeting, Budget Committee Chairman Rick Little made a motion to cut more than $145,000 from the Fire Department budget, with the intention to cut the per diems, go back to a volunteer force and reduce the fire chief’s salary to a $5,000 a year stipend plus hourly wages. Buffington seconded it and after a roughly 45-minute discussion, the measure was passed 52-37 with two abstentions.
“If you are interested in ignoring this [petition], which is part of the democratic process, is it the same as saying Mr. Little can’t make his motion at town meeting?” Summers asked. “There are 245 names that have signed that petition. Unless I missed my point [this] is almost five times the number of the people who voted to eliminate $145,000.”
Merz said the petition was not to rescind the June town meeting vote, but to give people proper notice to discuss changing the town’s fire service.
“The people weren’t warned – they weren’t informed that the Fire Department was going to be fundamentally changed. … It wasn’t in the warrant,” he said. “I am saying you have a responsibility, you have an obligation, to keep the citizens of Paris informed.
“If you get rid of the per diems, you get rid of the damn union,” Merz added passionately.
Buffington noted legal fees are “insane” with all of the union negotiations and normally he would be the first one to save money, but he was willing to spend it for the town’s attorney to weigh in on a petition, which is part of the democratic process.
“I don’t think the attorney s going to be able to give you a ruling to say it’s a ping-pong [petition] or not,” Town Manager Vic Hodgkins said. “You guys make the determination. … We can go through that exercise but I think it’s going to be money not well spent.”
“I think it’s important we check into this,” Buffington replied.
Selectmen have 60 days from when the petition was validated to act on it, which is Friday, Oct. 13, according to Town Clerk Liz Knox.
Even though union negotiations are ongoing with Teamsters Local 340, the town is moving toward a volunteer model because funding for the per diems program will run out around Sunday, Oct. 1. Buffington recognized the old and new volunteer firefighters at Monday’s meeting and there are currently 16 on the roster. A fire academy, which will not only train the Paris volunteer firefighters, but other area firefighters, begins on Thursday, Oct. 5.
Selectmen also approved a motion made by Buffington to have Hodgkins investigate whether or not taxpayer money was used in creating, printing or distributing a controversial flyer criticizing Buffington and Little, along with drafting language to post on the town’s website to state the document is inaccurate.
The flyers went out to Paris residents last week and Lorne Smith of Teamsters Local 340, who is negotiating on behalf of the per diems, said the Teamsters had money in the flyer, which represented the Friends of Paris Firefighters.
Deputy Fire Chief Jon Longley – who will become fire chief once the transition is complete and current Fire Chief Scott Hunter leaves – said after Monday’s meeting the flyer inaccurately stated that the town’s ISO rating could increase if the per diems were nixed. In 2004, when the department was still an all-volunteer program, Paris received a good ISO rating of 4.
The town recently went through another ISO rating process and Longley expects possibly even better results.
“Our numbers surpassed that of 2004,” he said. “We are going to keep that same rating or go up a click. There is no way that we can’t stay the same or improve.” According to Longley, the ISO rating was done with all volunteers. None of the per diems showed up, he said.