PARIS — The majority of selectmen opted to not send a citizens petition to restore funding to the Fire Department to a town meeting, so the Saturday, Sept. 30 layoff of the town’s 18 per diem firefighters will go ahead as planned.
After reviewing an opinion from the town’s attorney, Philip Saucier of Bernstein Shur, at the Monday, Sept. 25 Paris selectmen’s meeting, the board decided not to move forward with the petition submitted by Budget Committee member Richard Merz.
Selectboard Vice Chairman Chris Summers voted to host a town meeting on the matter, while Chairman Scott Buffington, Gary Vaughn, John Andrews and Rusty Brackett voted against.
Saucier noted if the petition is not placed on the ballot, it could be challenged by petitioners, though there was no indication Monday night that the selectboard’s decision would be challenged.
The petition – signed by 245 Paris residents – sought to restore the exact amount, $145,629, that was cut from the Fire Department’s budget at June annual town meeting. The motion was made by Budget Committee Chairman Rick Little and seconded by Buffington and intended to transition from a per diem back to an all volunteer model and reduce the fire chief’s salary to a $5,000 a year stipend, plus hourly wages. Selectmen and the Budget Committee recommended the department’s original $384,640 budget heading into town meeting.
Saucier wrote municipal officers have to place a valid petition article on a warrant under Maine law, unless they determine “it is reasonable to refuse to do so.” He referred to a 1990 case, Inhabitants of the Town of Vassalboro v. Frederick & Camille Denico.
“The Maine Superior Court has held that was reasonable and within the Board of Selectmen’s discretion when the Board in Vassalboro refused to send a citizen petition article to town meeting where there was no irregularities associated with the original vote and where it would essentially serve as a revote on a recently approved referendum,” Saucier wrote.
Brackett said he didn’t see any irregularities regarding the original vote and thought the petition was a revote on the issue. Buffington and Andrews agreed with the latter.
“I think it is clearly a ping pong article. It seeks to undo what was done at town meeting in the exact amount,” Andrews said.
Saucier referenced a second court case, the 2014 Friends of Congress Square Park v. City of Portland, which overturned Portland’s decision not to place a citizens petition on the ballot.
“It is important to note, however, that the Law Court liberally construes grants of voter initiatives so as to ‘facilitate, rather than to handicap, the people’s exercise of their sovereign power to legislate.’”
Summers said he thought the motion to cut the Fire Department funding came as a surprise to voters.
“I think the petition needs to be recognized and due diligence [done in] allowing this to go ahead and take place,” Summers said.
Merz and fellow Budget Committee member Mike Brogan took issue that there was not prior discussion about the budget cuts going into town meeting.
“It is still irritating to me that this was done without any type of preadvertisement or notification that there was going to be a major change on the article,” Brogan said, noting it’s not about whether the department uses the per diem or volunteer model. “It would have been nice to have a meeting to know all the information and all the ramifications of doing this and doing that.”
Merz did not speak Monday night.
Resident Peter Kilgore wondered where the people were who signed the petition.
“If they were interested in making this change, they should be here addressing that petition, not just one of two people gathering the names,” he said. “I think we should go forward with it and next town meeting in June, if it’s not working … that’s when it should be brought up again.”
Deputy Fire Chief Jon Longley – who will become fire chief once the transition is complete and current Fire Chief Scott Hunter leaves – previously reported there were 16 volunteer firefighters on the roster and applications continue to come in.
Brackett welcomed the news.
“I think in this case, the Fire Department is going to be a working model going forward and we’re going to have the protection we need,” he said.
Also as part of the transition, Town Manager Vic Hodgkins hired Mark Blaquiere as assistant fire chief to man the Fire Station from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. His new job is both a managerial and working firefighter position.
Former Selectman Kathy Richardson noted it is important to inform residents of the changes happening at the Fire Department.