CHINA: Broadband ballot question over 200 words long

by Mary Grow

China selectmen learned at their special meeting Sept. 2 that it takes at least two lawyers to draft a proper ballot question asking voters if they will authorize selectmen to issue a bond – and a third lawyer to explain the result.

The local referendum question China voters will be asked to vote yes or no at the polls Nov. 2 is more than 200 words long. It has four sections; one section has two subsections.

The China Broadband Committee (CBC) requests the bond issue to provide funds to build new internet infrastructure in China. CBC member Jamie Pitney, who is a lawyer, drafted the first version of the ballot question.

At the Sept. 2 special selectmen’s meeting, town attorney Amanda Meader zoomed in to explain that the Maine Bond Bank, from which town officials intend to seek a loan, needs authorizations worded in specific ways. She had referred Pitney’s wording to a bond expert, and she and Pitney had further refined that lawyer’s draft before it came to the selectmen at their regular meeting Aug. 30.

When selectmen reviewed the proposed question, board member Wayne Chadwick had a problem with the first sentence. It begins: “Shall the Town vote to a) approve the acquisition, construction and equipping of a broadband system to be owned by the Town and built by contractors” and goes on to specify maximum cost ($6,485,850) and other parameters.

The bond issue has a maximum of $5,608,700. Grants are supposed to cover the rest of the cost.

To Chadwick, who readily admits he is not a lawyer, the wording sounded as though if voters said yes, selectmen were obligated to set up the new system. CBC members have repeatedly set two conditions for going ahead with the project: enough residents must sign up for the proposed new service to make it financially sound, and grants must be obtained.

Meader pointed to two phrases farther along in the document that she said allowed selectmen to refuse to apply for the bond if conditions were not met.

One section she cited authorizes selectmen to accept money from grants and other sources as they determine “are necessary and proper.” Selectmen could find that no grants or other funds were “necessary and proper,” she said.

The other section says selectmen can delegate to the board chairman (Ronald Breton) and the town treasurer (Becky Hapgood) the power to issue the bonds and “in their discretion” to establish schedules and other details. Their “discretion” includes the possibility of finding they cannot carry out the responsibility, Meader said.

Meader described the wording of the ballot question as “convoluted” and “cumbersome.” To make the intent and effect clear to non-lawyers, she proposed, and selectmen accepted, a fourth section. It says that voters further:

“[R]equire the Select Board to vote to determine whether in their own judgment and discretion there is sufficient subscribership to proceed with the bond issue.”

After more than an hour’s discussion Sept. 2, the wording was accepted on a 4-1 vote, with Chadwick voting against it because he opposes the whole idea.

The earlier version of the article carried a selectmen’s recommendation of “Leave it to the People,” adopted on a split vote at the Aug. 30 selectmen’s meeting. Irene Belanger, Blane Casey and Janet Preston voted in favor of the recommendation; Breton and Chadwick were opposed, believing the board had a responsibility to offer advice.

Breton raised the question of changing the recommendation at the special meeting. Hapgood ruled, with Meader’s support, that only the three board members on the winning side of the prior vote could make a motion to change it.

Preston moved to make a recommendation that voters approve the bond issue. She called it “a very low-risk opportunity for the town,” given the previous discussion.

Chadwick seconded her motion. The selectmen have more information from their discussions at meetings than the average voter has, and therefore should provide guidance on the ballot question, he said.

Chadwick voted against Preston’s motion, which lost on a 2-3 vote, with Belanger and Preston in favor.

Casey then moved selectmen recommend that voters not approve the bond issue. His motion passed 3-2, with Breton, Casey and Chadwick in favor.

Selectmen agreed to put the question on the Nov. 2 ballot and to include the negative recommendations from the selectmen and budget committee, with the numbers on each side after the recommendations (3-2 for the selectmen, 4-1 for the budget committee at an Aug. 23 meeting).

The next regular China selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 13.


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