HALLOWELL — Residents will have another chance to weigh in on the Hallowell City Council’s decision to save the Hallowell Fire Department and pursue an agreement with Farmingdale during a public hearing Thursday.
The hearing is the next step in a process that began when a petition opposing the council’s Jan. 26 decision was circulated and later ratified by City Clerk Dianne Polky. The petition forces the council to revisit its original decision to move the city’s fire department to Farmingdale.
Stephen Langsdorf, a Hallowell resident and Augusta’s city attorney, submitted the petition because he didn’t approve of the way the council came to its decision to pursue a deal with Farmingdale. He collected 271 signatures and said he spoke to several hundred people who didn’t want the Hallowell Fire Department to move. Farmingdale is planning to build a new fire station, although its location hasn’t been determined, and the project has yet to be approved by voters.
“I’ve talked to very few people who’ve told me they thought the plan to move to Farmingdale made sense,” Langsdorf said. “I think there’s tremendous sentiment for both retaining some appropriate level of services in Hallowell while continuing to work with the professional firefighters in Augusta as first responders.”
During the council’s February meeting, Langsdorf, who didn’t attend any of the public meetings about fire services, expressed concern the council didn’t spend enough time discussing the merits of each plan. The council and Fire Services Committee held more than a dozen meetings, hearings and workshops about the city’s fire protection future and had a data-driven, fact-based discussion, City Manager Nate Rudy said.
The committee made its final presentation to the council during the Jan. 26 special meeting. Three committee members favored contracting fire services with the Augusta Fire Department, while two opted to recommend the Farmingdale option. Several members of the public spoke about the need to keep fire services in Hallowell and not disband the more than 200-year-old department.
The council deliberated for about 40 minutes before unanimously supporting the Farmingdale option. But that plan has stalled since Langsdorf’s petition was verified.
The city charter stipulates a public hearing must be held within 30 days of a petition’s submission, and the charter gives the council three options for how to move forward. It can vote to affirm its decision, nullify its decision — which would clean the slate and start the entire process over — or decide to put the decision to the voters in a referendum election, which must be held within 30 days of this public hearing.
Mayor Mark Walker said he doesn’t think a public vote will be the outcome and doesn’t think that’s what the council wants either. The council has been empowered to vote and make decisions on behalf of the people of Hallowell, he said.
“I think they’ll want to listen to the information and maybe put it to a vote of the council at a later time,” the mayor said. “I expect there’s going to be more discussion and more information.”
Langsdorf has said on many occasions he feels the council made too hasty a decision, and he hopes a lot of people come to Thursday’s meeting to make their voices heard.
“I do hope that a number of the (271 people) come forward and express their opinions as to why they signed the petition,” he said. “I hope there’s a more representative showing of people who have an independent feeling on this.”
Walker said a recall of a council decision hasn’t happened in recent Hallowell history and thinks it’s “kind of exciting.” He is looking forward to seeing how everything plays out while he conducts the hearing and listens to everyone’s comments.
“(Steve) has said all along that he just wanted the council to deliberate and have more time to look at the options and information,” Walker said. “I am 100 percent sure of (his) sincerity of wanting to do what’s best for the city.
“I’m also 100 percent confident in the ability of the council to weigh all information, opinions and testimony and come up with an excellent decision for the city,” he added.
Hallowell Fire Chief Jim Owens, who took over for Mike Grant in February, said he knows the quality and dedication of his firefighters and is looking forward to the meeting. Owens, 60, spent the last three years as a volunteer firefighter in Farmingdale and thinks an agreement with that town would be good for the city.
Owens said his firefighters have been galvanized through the process and want the city’s support.
“We look forward to the support from our citizens to demonstrate the Hallowell Fire Department should be a continuing endeavor,” the chief said.
The public hearing begins at 6 p.m. March 23 in the City Hall Auditorium.
Jason Pafundi — 621-5663