WINSLOW — A proposed “citizen initiative” aiming to repeal the June election result approving an $8.1 million school bond has been deemed illegal by the town’s attorney because the initiative action is not supported in the town charter.

Even so, the proposal lays bare the lingering concerns some residents still have with the controversial project to renovate and consolidate local schools, which was approved by a 56-vote margin at a vote in June.

“While this proposal is labeled as an initiative, it is really a referendum — a request to repeal the recently passed school bond referendum,” Bill Lee wrote in an email to town officials Monday. “The charter contains no grant of authority to have a referendum on a referendum. This is not surprising, as the voters have already spoken.”

The petition in question was turned in three weeks ago at the Winslow Town Office by a group of Winslow residents who oppose the school renovation project passed by voters. They believe June’s election did not portray the will of the people correctly.

The document served as a request to begin the enactment of an ordinance and proposed the following statement to be placed on the upcoming election ballot: “Do you wish to repeal the School Renovation Bond proposal for $8.1 million in spending voted on June 12, 2018? The Winslow Elementary School will be renovated to incorporate grades K through 8.”

The plan approved 881-825 by voters will renovate both the high school and the elementary school to absorb displaced sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students once the Winslow Junior High is closed.

The drive to place the initiative on the ballot was spearheaded by Phil St. Onge, an outspoken critic of the renovation plan who is a Winslow resident and also works as assistant principal of Nokomis Regional High School in Newport.

In early July, St. Onge also filed a petition to force a recount of the Winslow school bond question, which returned the same result as the election — the issue passing by 56 votes. At the time he said he was concerned by the 194 ballots that had left the school bond question blank.

St. Onge, as well as Winslow school board member Jason Rifenbark, and residents Fran Hudson, Mike Joseph and Cathy Nadeau (not the state legislator of the same name), all signed the document requesting to start the initiative process.

St. Onge said he did not have much to say in reaction to Lee’s legal opinion regarding the attempted initiative. He said the group would be meeting on Thursday to decide what their next move would be. St. Onge said it was likely they would take legal action.

“I don’t know how it wouldn’t end up in court,” he said.

Rifenbark declined to give a comment.

But Lee, the town attorney, said he does not see a way the group could move forward with this initiative. In his legal opinion to town officials, he pointed out three separate problems with what he called a “referendum on a referendum.”

First, Lee wrote, the town charter defines an initiative as a way to adopt an ordinance and referendums as a way to repeal a municipal action.

“With a citizen initiative, you’re trying to get the government to adopt something,” he said. In this case, the group is moving to repeal an action by the people.

Furthermore, Lee said, the charter describes a procedure to repeal actions enacted by the council, but does not outline a procedure to repeal an action taken by the public.

And even if there were such a procedure, Lee said, there is a 20-day deadline after municipal action to request its repeal, meaning the group missed the deadline if that provision in the charter applied in this case.

“The reason for short deadline is that when they’ve voted on the matter, generally it’s going to create binding obligation,” Lee said. “In this case it’s going to involve bonding and the town committing itself to borrowing money and signing contracts.”

“If people could come forward months after an election it could create chaos,” he said. “This isn’t the way municipal business is done in the town of Winslow — or any municipality, for that matter.”

Lee said the second problem with the initiative is that it covered two subjects: repealing the election results and a directive to renovate a school to accommodate grades Kindergarten through eight.

“What if someone is in favor of one proposal and opposed to the other?” he asked.

Lastly, Lee wrote that the decision to group certain grades together us a decision reserved to the school board and not subject to popular vote.

“How grades are going to be grouped in schools — that’s purely educational,” he said.

When asked if the group had standing to challenge his decision, Lee said he would have see what their claim would be before he could comment.

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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