Rome voters have agreed to accept donations to pay for legal bills in the two cellphone tower lawsuits underway at this point.

However, the article adopted essentially was written on the floor Monday at a special town meeting, according to Second Selectman Richard LaBelle.

He said the amendment was proposed by Chris Cook, an attorney who is a board member of Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance, which has come forward with a $1,000 donation.

The final version, which was approved overwhelmingly on the floor, asks whether the town will empower selectmen “to accept gifts of money to the municipality from organizations or individuals, not to exceed $15,000, for the purpose of supplementing the specific appropriation already made for costs, and expenses, including attorneys’ fees incurred by the town in litigation involving Global Tower Assets, LLC and Northeast Wireless Networks, LLC in the state and federal courts, and to use such gifts to pay the litigation costs and expenses that exceed the $50,000 appropriation already made.”

LaBelle said selectmen anticipate accepting $3,700 in donations already offered when they meet on Monday.

Two of three selectmen were opposed to the article, but they said they thought the final decision belonged to the voters, according to Second Selectman Richard LaBelle, who was one of the dissenters, along with Third Selectman Malcolm Charles. First Selectman Kelly Archer voted in favor of it.

“The (original) warrant issued was signed by all three of us,” LaBelle said. “I was not in favor of the wording or process of forming the article as it was originally done.”

He said he was not happy with the second one either.

“The sentiment from the board was that the warrant should be able to get to the people because that was where it belonged,” LaBelle said. “The ability to decide whether the town should accept the money should lie with the people, not the board.”

Fifty-seven voters attended the special town meeting. LaBelle said selectmen had understood that at least 54 voters were needed to constitute a quorum, based on the most recent gubernatorial vote, but Rep. Robert W. Nutting, R-Oakland, who was the moderator, ruled that was not necessary.

The town’s attorney, Frank Underkuffler, who crafted the original article, commented on the changes at the request of selectmen. In an email to the board sent the day after the meeting, he noted that “the legislative body has spoken, and it is clear that in accepting the donations, legally or not, and in spending them on the lawsuit, you will be acting in accordance with that body’s very clear (albeit probably nonbinding — ‘may’ in section 5652 does not mean ‘shall’) directive.”

He also recommended keeping good records about the source of donations in case the cell tower companies seek that information later.

At a July 7 public meeting, residents said they continued to support spending public money to defend the town in civil lawsuits brought by Global Tower Assets LLC, of Boca Raton, Florida, and Northeast Wireless Networks LLC, of Winchester, Massachusetts. The firms had sued the town and the Rome Planning Board in federal court about the denial of their application for permission to erect the tower even as they pursued an appeal in the state business court.

The two companies claimed they were victims of discrimination and should have been allowed to provide personal wireless services, that the application process took an unreasonably long time — more than a year — and that any written decision lacked substantial evidence in the written record. The companies hoped to spend an estimated $450,000 on a 190-foot tower on The Mountain, which overlooks Great Pond.

At the annual Town Meeting in March, Rome residents approved spending $50,000 on legal fees. By early July, more than $43,000 of that was spent and selectmen then called a meeting to gauge public sentiment. Altogether, the town has spent about $90,000 over three years.

The Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance came forward with an offer, so selectmen put it on the warrant. Selectmen noted they might consider accepting other donations if the article was amended at the special town meeting.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams


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