READFIELD — Still smarting from last year’s public works controversy, some residents hope to gain more of a voice in town government through the creation and adoption of a municipal charter.

A committee of residents has submitted a petition to request that Readfield form a charter commission to write the document. The question will go to a public vote sometime next year.

Tom Dunham, who led the petition drive, said the drafting of a charter would be an open process with lots of opportunities for public input, and the resulting document could give residents ways to address their concerns without relying on the Board of Selectmen or ballot initiatives.

“The perception of a lot of the public is we don’t get a chance to participate in our government affairs, and we just want to be heard,” Dunham said. “Right now, we’re doing that like we did with the public works, through the petition process, which seems to me to be a long and difficult way.”

Dunham said creating a charter would allow for healing in Readfield, which experienced deep divisions during last year’s campaign to eliminate the Public Works Department and a subsequent, unsuccessful initiative to reinstate it.

The charter petition committee includes several residents who were vocal opponents of the department. In addition to Dunham, the members are his wife, Marion; John Cushing; Lorraine Hall Wagner; and Sandra Rourke.

Most larger cities in Maine have charters, but many smaller cities and towns do as well, said Chris Lockwood, executive director of Maine Municipal Association.

“A local charter is essentially equivalent to a constitution for a state government or the federal government,” Lockwood said. “It’s a seminal document that provides the authority for how the local government is going to be structured and who has the authority, and things like that.”

Charters vary from community to community, but they make explicit issues such as term limits, budgeting processes, conflict-of-interest policies and recall of officials. A charter can be adopted or amended only by a secret ballot of the public.

There are two ways to prompt a public vote on the formation of a charter commission: by a selectmen’s vote or citizen petition.

Dunham repeatedly asked the selectmen to put it on the ballot, but they declined.

“The board simply asked the question, ‘How will it benefit the town?’ Before we move forward, we just would like to answer that question,” board Chairman Larry Dunn said. “The question was never sufficiently answered, so that caused the board to decide not to move forward with it.”

Dunn said selectmen wanted a compelling reason to adopt a charter because it is a yearlong process requiring a significant time commitment from the commission members, and there is no money in the budget for it.

The charter petition committee formed at the end of July, and it turned in 289 valid signatures, surpassing the required 262.

Dunham said Readfield’s governance should be tailored to the town, not determined by state statute. Creating a charter would allow the town to come up with a structure that satisfies everyone and should provide for more public involvement in town government, he said.

“I understand that the Town Office needs their space and the ability for them to do their job, but they also need to address the citizens’ concerns, and that’s what we’ve been struggling with for two years now,” Dunham said. “I think what needs to be looked at, which the charter commission would, is how do we provide a forum for the public input and still do our business at select board meetings?”

Dunham cited as an example a decision made at the last board meeting to move the public communications portion of the agenda to the end of every meeting and not to broadcast it on television.

Dunn said the selectmen made that decision to protect town employees. Members of the public are not supposed to mention employees by name in their comments, but the selectmen cannot prevent that from happening.

Because public comment is at the end of meetings, Dunn said, the selectmen are trying to ensure that residents can give input by not deciding any issue at the meeting where it’s first discussed, unless it’s an emergency.

On Monday, for example, the selectmen will discuss possible dates for the vote on forming a charter commission, but they won’t set a date until the following meeting. They must set the vote at least 90 days in advance, so it would be in February at the earliest.

The charter commission would have up to a year to submit a report to the selectmen, and the charter would require approval at another public vote.

Dunham said he looks forward to an open process and thinks transparency will prevent the sort of ugliness that accompanied the public works debate. He said he does not think the commission would change fundamentally Readfield’s structure of government: town meeting, a Board of Selectmen and a town manager.

Dunn said he hopes for plenty of education and discussion in the months before the vote.

“I hope the residents will require an answer to the question we were asking, which is how this will benefit the town,” Dunn said.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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