Rien Finch, secretary of Waterville’s charter commission, said Thursday the commission has finished its work and will submit its proposed changes for the City Council to review in August. Michael G. Seamans

WATERVILLE — If city voters in November approve proposed changes to the city charter, council vacancies would be filled by special election rather than by council appointment, anyone wanting to run for mayor would be required to have lived in the city at least a year instead of three months and two-thirds of the City Council must vote to approve a budget, rather than the current majority of four councilors.

Those are some of the changes the city’s charter commission plans to send Aug. 4 to the City Council for review, before the council sends the proposal to the city clerk’s office to be placed on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The commission has been meeting regularly since January to go over the current charter, which governs how the city operates, and determine what, if any, changes should be made.

There is no legal requirement that changes be made. The commission’s final meeting was July 7, when it voted to send the proposed changes to the council.

“We did go through everything,” commission Secretary Rien Finch said Thursday. “We took the charter, line item by line item, so if there’s an issue or changes that didn’t make it on, that doesn’t mean it didn’t get debated. We did our due diligence on every issue, every item inside the charter.”

Voters are asked every seven years, as required by the charter, whether a charter commission should be established to revise the charter or establish a new one. Residents in November 2019 voted 1,150 to 623 to establish the commission. They also elected charter commission members from each city ward, and the council appointed three members.

Led by Tom Nale Jr. and James Laliberty, who served as co-chairmen, the 10-member commission held a public meeting Jan. 11, met twice a month through April and in mid-May started meeting every week.

Along with Nale, Laliberty and Finch, who represented Ward 6, members were Cathy Weeks, Ward 1; Phil Bofia, Ward 2; Lutie Brown, Ward 3; Hilary Koch, Ward 4; Julian Payne, Ward 5; and Ronald Merrill, Ward 7. Nale, Laliberty and Samantha Burdick were appointed by the council.

Finch was working Thursday on a draft of a letter the commission will send to the council prior to the council’s meeting Aug. 4, at which it is expected to review the proposed charter changes and ask questions of commissioners.

“For our first major change, we feel that the council appointment of vacancies creates too much division and disenfranchises the residents of the ward in which the vacancy occurs,” the draft letter reads. “We propose moving back to plebiscite filling of vacancies.

“We took great care to set up a timeline of binding the special elections to the June/November regular elections and allowing caucuses to nominate candidates up to 40 days before a special election to create as little a burden as possible on the City Clerk’s office.

“This initial vote was not unanimous and passed by the Charter Commission in a vote of 9-1, but at final vote-out, the dissenting member indicated the measure now had their support.”

The commission considers the second major proposed change the requirement that the council pass the municipal budget by a two-thirds majority, instead of the current simple majority, Finch said.

“We feel that the budget impacts the lives of the residents of the city in every way, and such a large impact should be done with the greatest care to the residents,” the commission’s letter reads. “Ensuring a 2/3 passage means more voices are heard and considered and forces the council to guarantee they are looking out for their constituents.

“This initial vote was not unanimous and passed by the Charter Commission in a vote of 8-2, but at final vote-out, both members indicated the measure now had their support.”

Finch said Thursday that most of the proposed changes were about fixing language referring to state statute and clarifying issues. For example, three separate places in the charter address how the mayor, councilors and members of the Waterville Board of Education are inducted into office, and the commission proposes putting them all in one place.

“We didn’t amend the charter language,” Finch said. “We just cleaned it up to make it easier to read and easier to understand.”

The commission sought to standardize voting that requires two-thirds of a body, so the proposed language reads, “Two-thirds present and voting.”

The charter now allows the city manager to head up two city departments, along with performing the duties of city manager. The commission proposes changing charter language to say the city manager cannot head up a department unless he or she is filling in on an interim basis because of a resignation or other reason for vacancy, but the city manager may not be a permanent department head.

Commissioners said they spent considerable time discussing a proposed change that would require the city finance director to provide the council monthly updates on the city budget, according to Finch. The commissioners’ work included talking with councilors about the requirement, he said.

Another change the commission proposes relates to those wanting to run for the Kennebec Water District board of trustees. Those seeking to run would have to be nominated at a party caucus, according to the proposed language. Currently, this is not required.

“We didn’t have it written in the charter,” Finch said.

Other proposed changes to the charter:

• Anyone wanting to take out papers to try to recall a city councilor or school board member would have to live in the ward in which the councilor or board member lives. The rules now allow any resident to take out papers.

• The city’s comprehensive plan would be evaluated every seven years, like the charter. Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, requested the change, according to Finch.

Voters in November will consider the charter package as a whole in a “yes” or “no” vote, according to Finch. The commission voted 8-2 on July 7 to send the proposed changes to the council, with Payne and Weeks opposing the final package.

Finch said the charter commission worked hard to arrive at a proposal it felt would benefit the city and its residents.

“Talk is easy,” he said. “Governing is hard, and you can’t govern without compromise. We had a very diverse commission. We kind of really represented the full range of Waterville voters and residents.

“Despite all the different political ideologies, we did find consensus, we did manage to make significant changes. We feel the voters of Waterville can know this is a solid compromise document that has the best interest of the city at heart.”

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