FAIRFIELD — A public hearing is set for Tuesday night to update residents on the Fairfield Charter Commission plans to change the annual Town Meeting from a public show-of-hands vote in May to public hearings and a referendum vote in June when the school district votes on the school budget.

The meeting is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. at the Fairfield Community Center on Water Street next to the police station.

Based on models from other towns in Maine, including nearby Clinton, the charter change is being recommended as a way to boost town participation in government from just a handful at the Town Meeting to potentially hundreds voting referendum style, said Somerset County Administrator and Fairfield Charter Commission Chairwoman Dawn DiBlasi and Town Manager Michelle Flewelling.

“The biggest change is now it’s going to be different when and how the Town Meeting will be conducted for votes to pass a budget,” DiBlasi said Monday.

The deadline for final commission recommendations is Aug. 3 so the question can be placed on the Nov. 8 referendum ballot.

Currently town business is conducted annually in much the same way that other small towns do, with an open town meeting and voting on articles. This year the Town Meeting was May 9.

The changes, if approved by voters, would include two formal public hearings leading up to the referendum vote with printed copies of the proposed budget and a direct mailing to all Fairfield residents announcing the hearings. The Town Council and the Budget Committee would take in comments and spending recommendations and arrive at final articles to be voted on in the privacy of the ballot booth.

“Instead of it being a town meeting, it’s going to be a town hearing,” DiBlasi said. “People will get to express what they’d like done differently after being provided with a letter going out to all the residents saying ‘Here is what the budget looks like’ in advance of the town hearing, when people get to weigh in on the budget.”

The referendum ballot will list each article and a recommendation on the spending line, said Flewelling. If a budget line is voted down, the spending line automatically reverts back to the prior year’s amount “until such time as a new number can be approved,” she said.

“It’s subject to the fact that there’s two public hearings prior to the vote, one in which articles can be altered, one in which they can not,” she said. “It allows for some feedback and public involvement, so it’s not just the council, not just the Budget Committee, but it also has public involvement prior to setting the numbers.”

Flewelling said she looked at voter turnout numbers in Clinton, where she once was an administrative assistant, and found the participation figures surprising.

She said when the change took place in Clinton 12-15 years ago, participation numbers went up 400 percent.

At the Fairfield Town Meeting May 9, about 70 people showed up to vote from a total population of about 6,600 people. Former Town Manager Josh Reny said in 2014 that attendance at the annual Town Meeting in May of that year was less than 1 percent of registered voters.

“It seems to attract more folks, so that you get a larger spectrum of your community that is participating,” Flewelling said. “It’s how to get more folks involved.”

DiBlasi agreed, noting that June balloting would get the voters out.

“We’re hoping to go from having 70 people who show up for the Town Meeting to having everybody who’s going to show up to vote on other issues also going to vote on the town budget,” she said. “They’re going to be there to vote anyway, why not combine it and we’ll get more people to vote.

“We do want to hear from you. We want your input and here’s the chance to do it.”

Fairfield residents in November 2014 voted 1,080-948 against a town Charter Commission to study town government and possibly change the way it operates. Voters reconsidered after the Town Council put the question on the ballot again in 2015.

The vote was 357-324 to create the nine-member panel. The commission’s first meeting was in January.

With the exception of a few minor amendments over the years, the Fairfield town charter has not been changed in 30 years. A town charter is like a local constitution which governs municipal business and addresses what can be done and by whom within the local government.

Other changes recommended by the Charter Commission include reducing the number of people on the town Budget Committee from 12 to nine, with three-year staggered terms.

The nine-member commission has been meeting twice monthly since January. The first public hearing was in March. The next public hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. June 11.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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