Richmond’s annual budget vote will take place by referendum this year on July 14, over public health concerns about holding an open Town Meeting in June.

Town Manager Adam Garland proposed two options for the Board of Selectmen to consider at the board’s Monday meeting. Both options call for a referendum vote on July 14 for budget items, requiring residents to vote on proposed spending either at the polls or by absentee ballot.

The difference is when Richmond residents would vote on proposed changes to the town’s Land Use Ordinance. Option A sets that vote for November. Option B set the vote for July.

“My fear with scheduling a regular open forum Town Meeting is simply that the governor said on her message today that it’s going to be a while before business comes back to usual,” he said, referring to the daily briefing that state officials give on the coronavirus pandemic; Gov. Janet Mills gave Monday’s update with Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

“She’s probably going to be extending the stay-at-home order. And not that I have a crystal ball or anything, but I have concerns that mass gatherings will be severely limited,” he said.

And if the rate of infection of the highly contagious virus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19 starts to increase, he said, Mills said the state may step in and put further restrictions in place.

The difference between the options before Richmond elected officials Monday was when voters would be asked to decide on proposed changes to Richmond’s Land Use Ordinance.

Typically, Richmond holds its annual Town Meeting during the first week in June, during which residents vote on proposed town spending for the upcoming budget year and on any proposed ordinance changes. Its municipal election on the second Tuesday in June, coinciding with the state primary election.

But under an executive order by Gov. Janet Mills to slow the spread of coronavirus, Maine’s primary election has been delayed by a month, and will be held July 14.

Selectmen David Thompson commended Garland for developing two choices and supported the second.  The reason, he said, is that last year board members committed to bringing changes to the town’s land use policy to voters at an annual Town Meeting when they are used to see them, rather than scheduling a special town meeting at a different time.

“The Planning Board has brought changes to us,” he said. “We have an obligation to get this done at Town Meeting, or at the earliest possible election. We have an election. We have an obligation to do it at Town Meeting, not wait until November.”

The proposed ordinance changes are to the definition and requirements for cluster developments in Richmond.

Thompson’s motion didn’t draw any support.

“This board of selectmen made the statement last fall when this first came up, we would do it at the Town Meeting, the regular time of the year, not wait till next November, a year later,” Thompson said.

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Selectman Randy Bodge said, “it’s not really a normal year. We’re talking about heath issues, life and death issues.”

“I get it, but we have put it off and put it off. The budget is not a life-or-death issue, but we are doing (that) at a referendum forum,” Thompson said.

“That (the budget) is a little more important,” Randy Bodge said.

Garland said the ordinance changes were ready to be considered earlier this year, but it was at one of the first board of selectmen meetings that was either canceled or held via Zoom.

Selectman Robert Bodge said the board has not had any discussions yet on any proposed ordinance changes, noting that circumstances have made scheduling any discussion about proposed changes difficult.

One of the concerns with holding a referendum vote is that residents would not have their annual Town Reports in hand when they make their budget decisions as they do at open town meetings.

Garland said last year, budget overview information was included in the town’s Mainely Richmond newsletter. He said a Facebook live session he did earlier this year before the vote to extend one of Richmond’s two tax increment financing district drew 700 views.

“I’m just trying to be completely transparent,” Selectman Andrew Alexander said.

Robert Bodge pointed out that town residents had sufficient information to vote at last year’s Town Meeting to finish voting in less than an hour.

Garland said the town’s attorney said other municipalities are considering whether to hold their annual Town Meetings as a referendum vote. Wiscasset made the decision a number of years ago to switch to the referendum format.

The Maine State Legislature, before ending its session in March, passed legislation that would allow cities and towns to delay their annual budget meetings and elections, while continuing to carry out municipal business.

That move offered immediate relief for communities with annual Town Meetings scheduled for the second half of March. The second round of annual Town Meetings had been scheduled to take place in June and July.

In the end, the board voted 3-2, with Chairman O’Neil Laplante and Thompson voting no, to hold the annual budget vote as referendum in July and delay consideration of the land use ordinance until November.

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