Darlene Power, left, and Deborah Rose hold a protest Friday, March 4, on Farmington Falls Road in New Sharon to encourage residents to reject all articles on the 2022 town warrant. Townspeople were concerned with the format of New Sharon’s 2022 Town Meeting, held by referendum vote. Some residents said they felt the new process hindered peoples’ voices. Power dressed as a duck to represent the “sitting ducks” of the Board of Selectmen, and Rose dressed as a bulldog to signify they are serving as “watchdogs” for the Board of Selectmen. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

NEW SHARON — Though 23 of 25 warrant articles passed at the 2022 New Sharon Town Meeting referendum Saturday, March 5, quite a few were approved by just a narrow margin of voters.

Town Clerk Pamela Adams said calls this close are unusual for the quiet town of New Sharon.

“It’s been quite a while since there was this much talk over a town meeting,” Adams said.

Townspeoples’ “Vote No” movement was a likely culprit.

The “Vote No” movement encouraged voters in New Sharon to reject all articles on the 2022 New Sharon town warrant. Townspeople taking part in the initiative were unhappy with the Board of Selectmen’s decision to hold this year’s meeting by secret ballot referendum.

Multiple voters at the polls said they felt the voice of voters is hindered by a town meeting ballot referendum. A town meeting held by secret ballot diminishes the townspeoples’ ability to debate, discuss and amend the articles together in front of the select board, they said.

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The select board said the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions at the usual venue, legalities around requiring masking to vote and the legal timeline for town meeting were reasons for the format.

It was the lack of an in-person town meeting that ultimately rallied a number of voters together to reject all the articles. Other voters told the Franklin Journal they rejected a considerable number (though not all) for the same reason.

But it seems the movement sprouted from a different concern — how the select board was handling historic town artifacts.

FIGHT – OR IS IT?

A week before the vote, historical committee member Darlene Power began posting on a community Facebook page for the town that the select board was planning to sell off historic town items. Other historical committee members including Chair David Dill, Deborah Rose and Libby Kaut had similar concerns.

Power, who has been most vocal about the concerns, felt that the select board mishandled care of the New Sharon Chaise. Though Power referred to it as “shay” – a carriage-sleigh hybrid.

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Power was concerned that Select Board Chair Lorna Nichols would take the chaise for herself. This was a desire confirmed by an email exchange between the two women Nichols forwarded to the Franklin Journal.

However, there is no evidence that Nichols ever moved forward in that endeavor. Nichols did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this matter.

Today, the chaise is in the possession of the Franklin County Agricultural Society at the Farmington Fairgrounds.

Power did not provide any additional evidence that Nichols and the board had these intentions, plans in the works. She felt the chaise was a significant indicator.

The historical committee members were also upset there were currently no plans in the works for a room in the town office for a historical museum.

Dill said at a special town meeting, voters approved construction of a new Town Office with blueprints including a room for a historical museum.

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This followed a process where the former New Sharon Historical Society transferred over all of the historic artifacts in its possession to the town, dissolved and transformed into the municipal New Sharon Historical Committee so the items could be displayed in the office, Dill said.

Town officials say while voters approved funding for a new town office, they did not approve a blueprint that specified the office would have a historical museum.

The Franklin Journal acquired the minutes for the Special Town Meeting held Dec. 3, 2019. Voters passed a number of articles regarding funding for the office. No specifics on a historical museum were mentioned, nor was a blueprint approved in this warrant.

In the 2021 Town Report, the select board wrote that historical items were moved to storage while awaiting a series actions including a catalogue of historic town items by the historical committee and acquirement of American Rescue Plan Act funds to display the items.

“The original idea for a stand-alone historical room was removed during the building process of the new Town Office/Fire Station due to received bids coming in over voter approved funds,” the board wrote in its Report of the Selectmen.

Historical committee members from left, Deborah Rose and Lorna Nichols protested in New Sharon on March 4 and 5 to encourage voters to “Vote No” for all articles on the warrant for the 2022 New Sharon town meeting. Nichols and other townspeople were unhappy that the select board opted to hold this year’s town meeting by secret ballot referendum. Many felt it was a sign of how the board uses their power and “micromanages” how the town is run. Though the board says the format was chosen because of constraints from the COVID-19 pandemic. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

The board also wrote that stipulations in the fine print of the one-year building warranty forbid putting “holes in the walls, or altered things etc.”

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Dill believes that final concern to be dubious; that there were feasible workarounds to still have a historical room while obeying the stipulations.

Power also claimed the committee did not author its report included in the town report.

As a result, the board plans to put historical items in display cases placed around the town office. The cases will be funded by the town’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act, a spending plan voters approved in Article 26 on March 5.

These concerns were intensified when the historical committee learned about Article 18 on the town warrant. It asked voters “to authorize the Selectmen to dispose of town owned personal property, under such terms and conditions as they deem advisable.”

That was a red flag for the committee and they sounded the alarms.

Power took to the Facebook group which since seems to have been taken down. Here and in interviews, Power raised many more concerns across a variety of topics and issues.

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She claimed Nichols was controlling, Selectperson Travis Pond was a “sitting duck” and that the public hearing via Zoom was poorly conducted to silence the townspeople.

Power, Dill and other voters at the polls also expressed discontent with the public hearing – a legally required addition for a town meeting held via referendum.

Power and Dill, who attended the hearing, complained about how there was a poor internet connection.

Town Treasurer Erin Norton said there were issues with audio and the hearing took place the night of a mighty windstorm that knocked out power for some people in town. The poor connection was a result of circumstance, she said.

Resident Cristy Foss countered that the hearing should have then been rescheduled.

“There was heavy wind all day long up here and they still chose to have that Zoom meeting,” she said.

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Even so, resident and former New Sharon Fire Department Captain Daniel Foss said a virtual hearing is not realistic for New Sharon – a town with a large population of older people and unreliable broadband access.

Unhappy with how they were able to voice their concerns during the public hearing, committee members Power, Dill, Rose and Libby Kaut attended the Select Board’s Wednesday, March 2, meeting.

At that meeting, Power and Nichols butted heads. Power brought up the aforementioned email exchange, where Nichols wanted to take the chaise. Mid-meeting, both Power and Nichols spent time searching for the email thread. Power had just a screenshot. Nichols was able to find the chain and forwarded this reporter select pieces.

To soothe the concerns about the historical artifacts, Pond raised a motion that the town hold a special town meeting and ask voters if they would like to reacquire possession of the chaise. Power said she’d discuss it with the committee and return with a collective judgment. The motion was tabled.

At the end of the meeting, Pond also raised a motion to add stipulations to Article 18 via the next town meeting – whether special or annual – in order to ease these concerns.

The motion passed unanimously. Power applauded the motion. However, in an interview March 4, Power said she was still dubious the artifacts would be protected.

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“What they say and what they do is two opposite things,” she said.

Throughout the meeting, Power also passed this reporter a variety of notes addressing some of the discussion taking place among the selectpersons during the meeting.

Power’s concerns were far ranging but there was one link, written in one note – that “all the little lies add up.” What the lies in question are remain unclear and unconfirmed at this point.

WHAT HAPPENED?

No matter the start of the conflict, Power and other townspeople still craved an in-person town meeting where they could have discussion, amend articles and directly address the select board.

Selectperson Travis Pond said there were no nefarious intentions behind the format of the meeting. Rather, the board had chosen to hold Town Meeting by referendum due to Cape Cod Hill School’s stipulation, made back in November, that voters wear masks at the meeting.

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The Town Meeting is normally held at Regional School Unit 9’s Cape Cod Hill School, which had a mask mandate that was lifted at the RSU 9 Board of Director’s Tuesday, March 8, meeting.

Pond told the Franklin Journal that the Maine Municipal Association has said it is unconstitutional to ask individuals to wear masks in order to vote. This is why they opted to hold the meeting by referendum vote, he said.

Multiple residents felt townspeople would have been willing to wear masks if it meant voting at an in-person meeting.

According to Kate Dufour, Director of State and Federal Relations at the Maine Municipal Association, it’s not that asking someone to wear a mask while voting is unconstitutional, but the MMA’s “concern is denying someone the right to cast a vote” if they refuse to mask.

“There is a concern with barring the public from public proceedings to cast a vote,” Dufour said.

Pond said Sunday, Feb. 27, the board was informed by Cape Cod Hill School officials that the school could host the meeting without masking requirements.

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But because absentee ballots had already been sent out and a number turned in, the board could not reverse the decision and hold an in-person meeting.

Not all voters felt a meeting by referendum was unjustified and conducted with ulterior motives.

Patty Murray felt it was “no one’s fault except the constraints of the pandemic.”

BEYOND THE ARTIFACTS

Even in the face of the circumstances, voters wanted an in-person town meeting and felt unhappy with the conduct of the board.

Power felt the chaise incident and lack of an in-person town meeting indicated the issues with the board. She said in a phone interview March 1 that it’s not possible to communicate with the board.

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“It’s their way or the highway,” she said. “[The select board has] alienated all the residents and they’ve thrown their hands up in the air.”

She also wanted the board to “take an anti-bullying course” because Pond “mentioned it several years ago.”

“It certainly needs to be done for the way they’re treating the citizens of New Sharon, Maine,” Power said.

“I’m just sick of the residents getting railroaded, disrespected, bullied,” she said. “When we go in there, we feel like we’re going into the bullpen.”

Dill said the public hearing was a “sham” because the connection was shoddy. He felt townspeople, himself and Power included, were unable to properly voice their concerns.

“They’re intentionally doing voter restrictions,” Dill said.

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Claims, concerns on how the board exercises its power and micromanages was a resounding theme when speaking with voters.

At the polls, other townspeople echoed these concerns.

Tony Ramsey accused the board of being “authoritarian” and “micromanaging” issues in town.

Daniel Foss felt the secret ballot took away voters’ ability to learn about how the town is run, have a greater impact and hold the select board accountable for their decisions.

“[An in-person town meeting] allows for the discussion; it allows that debate,” Foss said. “It allows [voters] … to let the Select Board know that what [they’re] doing isn’t right.”

Foss referenced John Welch, the former town fire chief who resigned in January 2022.

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Welch said he resigned “due to ongoing and persistent challenges with the New Sharon Select Board” in a resignation letter posted to his Facebook page and on a physical community posting board at Douin’s Market.

He accused the board of “overstepping their roles, micromanaging the Fire Department and being disrespectful.” He cited how the board cut the fire department’s budget when they “have no experience running a Fire Department [and] shouldn’t be making any decisions in Fire Department matters.”

“The officers for the New Sharon Fire Department work hard on the budget to keep it to just what the department needs for operating,” Welch wrote. “I fear [the board] will continue on this dangerous path at the towns expense and feel that the town’s people need to be aware of how their town is being run.”

Foss said he also resigned following Welch’s departure and Welch wrote that other fire department members parted ways, as well.

Foss and Welch both felt the board should allow the town to vote on the department’s recommended budget rather than forcing the department to cut it down further.

‘VOTE NO’

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Power subsequently helped launch the “Vote No” movement with signs across town and a protest on Friday, March 4, and Saturday, March 5, down the road from the New Sharon Town Office.

Power dressed as a duck to represent Pond. She referenced a comment someone made that “Travis was just a duck and walked behind Lorna and went ‘quack, quack, quack’ … a sitting duck.”

She was joined by Rose, dressed as a bulldog to represent how they are serving as the “watchdogs” and protectors of the town.

Power said though the motion on Article 18 was passed at the board meeting, the townspeople still “want a town meeting.”

Power was also encouraging voters to write in her name for the select board election. Incumbent Selectperson Paula Nason ran unopposed on the ballot (and won her seat for another three-year term).

In an interview in the days leading up to town meeting, Nichols said town services would be shut down if the budget was not passed because there would be no money to run the town.

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Voters disagreed with this, saying there is leeway in the budget for emergency funds; that essential services would continue; that there was a town ordinance for this kind of situation.

The Franklin Journal was unable to find any ordinance in New Sharon law addressing this. An ordinance passed in 2021 would allow the select board to spend an additional $10,000 in the event of “unanticipated expenses” – but only for the 2021 calendar year.

Pond declined to confirm whether town services would shut down. He said the board would reach out to MMA in that event.

Power did not feel that concern was her responsibility.

“You should have thought of that before they had a forum without a town report,” Power said.

She referenced the fact the town report was not published before the hearing.

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However, the warrant articles were posted on Feb. 17  satisfying state law.

Power was still unhappy. It’s the town report that she was concerned about.

“How could we look at the [warrant] and ask questions if we don’t have anything? They had all the figures. All we had was words,” Power said. “They really didn’t give you time to debate. They wrapped all the articles together and that’s not fair. That’s not the way we operate. The townspeople want a town meeting.”

“Until you get the audit, you can’t be sure,” Rose said.

In the event that town services did shut down, townspeople voting down the articles agreed it’d be the board’s fault for no town meeting.

AT THE POLLS

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Over a handful of residents at the polls in the New Sharon Town Office March 5 told the Franklin Journal they voted down all articles as a result of the town meeting format.

A number of other voters who were unhappy with the format said they were not rejecting all of the articles, but ones important enough, such as the budget, to require a special town meeting.

Some voters didn’t know that there was an initiative at all. But some were still rejecting a number of articles due to unanswered questions and an inability to make amendments.

Patty Murray was voting for Power as a write in to get some “fresh blood” on the board.

That isn’t to say all voters participated in the initiative or were unhappy with the select board.

Danielle and Del, who withheld their last names, said they approved all of the articles.

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“I’d like my roads to continue to be plowed,” Danielle said. “If we vote down no, things like that are going to stop happening.”

Danielle pointed out that “Vote No” leaders had concerns with one question and “instead of choosing to just ask the people to vote down that one question, they’re asking people to vote no on everything.”

Del said he did not share the same concerns about the meeting format.

“As long as you trust your town officials, I don’t think it’s really concerning to have [a referendum vote],” he said.

Del added that “in this day and age” an in person town meeting is not necessary; that people had the choice to attend hearings and meetings on the warrant.

“Trust your selectpeople. They’re gonna make it in person if there’s something that should be done in person,” Danielle said.

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THE TOWNS PEOPLE HAVE SPOKEN

Town Clerk Adams was not able to send results until 1:12 a.m.

“It was a long evening,” she wrote in an email.

With all the votes counted, it was clear that the initiative did gain some steam.

Six articles passed with an approximate 5% margin or less. A total ten were approved within a 10% margin or less.

Voters also rejected Article 3, on property tax levies, and the aforementioned Article 18.

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Power also received 34 write-in votes (to Nason’s 116) for the open seat on the Board of Selectmen.

“There is not usually such a close call on the vote,” Adams said Sunday, March 6.

She speculated, though could not say for certain, that it was likely in part due to the desire for an in-person town meeting.

“I think our residents, of course, really would rather have an in-person town meeting so they can ask specific questions … questions that they wanted answers to,” Adams said.

In the end, the initiative was not victorious. But it did make waves.

Power said, at the protest, that though it’d be “hard to say” if the initiative would succeed, she was proud, either way.

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“Either way it goes, I’m happy because we made a difference,” she said.

Pond said it’s up to voters to “decide” how the town is run.

“I don’t have any concerns with anything. The board puts articles for the residents to vote on,” Pond said. “The residents are the legislative body … So whatever is determined that will be up to the board to proceed as necessary.”

It’s unclear how Nichols felt about the initiative. This reporter was unable to reach Nichols, after multiple requests for comment, by time of publication.

It’s also unclear how the board will move forward with the rejection of Article 3. It would have “permanently increase[d] the property tax levy limit of $691,522 established for the Town of New Sharon by state law in the event that the municipal budget, approved under the following articles, will result in a tax commitment that exceeds that property tax levy limit?”

No matter the opinion or voting decision, nearly every voter who spoke to the Franklin Journal missed in-person town meeting and was hopeful it’d be back to normal next year.

Perhaps that’s all up to the pandemic. Though some townspeople might say otherwise.


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