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June 1, 2007

Peaks secession movement encounters choppy water at the legislature

by David A. Tyler

Although a two-year effort by Peaks Island to secede from Portland looked likely to be defeated in Augusta, the committee in charge of the secession bill did prod Portland to address some of the issues raised in the secession debate.

In mid-May, the Joint Standing Committee on State and Local Government voted 7 to 5 against L.D. 1793, the Peaks Island secession bill.

However, the committee did ask the Portland City Council to address certain concerns of Peaks islanders that came up in testimony about the bill, including the future of the island school, island representation in city government and assistance with mainland parking. As a result of the local government committee's request, the Portland City Council on May 21 approved three resolutions regarding these issues.

Peaks Island began its secession bid after a City of Portland property revaluation that sent values, and taxes, skyrocketing. The revaluation also sparked secession talk on Cliff Island, Portland's outermost island with a year-round community, but the effort there did not proceed beyond several meetings. In June 2006 Peaks Islanders voted in favor of secession 393 votes to 290.

Over 120 people attended a late-April hearing for the bill before the state and local government committee. Those testifying on either side of the issue disagreed on nearly every point, except that all islanders care passionately about Peaks Island. Both sides believe their solution, either secession or remaining with Portland, is the only way that the island will survive as a year-round community.

Many legislators who voted against the bill indicated their vote against secession depended on the city's response to their concerns. Essentially Portland officials were told, "don't come back here without taking these actions," said Sen. Elizabeth M. Schneider (D-Penobscot), the committee's co-chair.

All nine members of the Portland City Council approved the three resolutions. The first motion states that the city remains committed "to the continued operation of the Peaks Island and Cliff Island Elementary Schools," according to the text of the resolutions, sponsored by City Councilor Jim Cohen, who was the city's chief negotiator in secession negotiations. The Portland School Committee also passed that resolution.

The second motion sets up a process to create an Island Council for year-round islanders. In addition, the school committee member and councilor representing the district that Peaks Island is part of are to be non-voting members of this new, advisory body.

During the hearing, islanders expressed frustration that they could not impact city decisions because of the island's small population (relative to Portland) and the difficulty of attending night meetings on the mainland.

This move is also in response to concerns that the Peaks Island Neighborhood Association "is not a formal representative of the island," according to the resolutions. City officials will work with islanders to create this council, for which the first elections are to be held this November. The council also approved $5,000 to help run this new body. The city will run, and pay for, elections for the Island Council.

The city also agreed to include island representatives and a member of the new Island Advisory Council as part of the hiring process for the position of island/neighborhood advisor. Created after Peaks Island's last secession attempt in the early 1990s, that post was originally dedicated to the city's islands, before being modified to include all city neighborhoods in recent years.

In the final resolution, Portland promised to provide $50,000 annually to help islanders with mainland parking. In addition, the council voted to maintain its current subsidy of $10 per month for 151 spots in the Casco Bay parking garage and a guarantee of 150 spots reserved for islanders (at market rates) in a new garage under construction at the corner of Middle and Hancock Streets. The council also promised 25 resident parking stickers near Casco Bay Lines. The Island Council and other island representatives will decide who gets the stickers.

Schneider, the committee's co-chair, said the response of city officials at hearings on the bill indicate the city is willing to work more collaboratively "than other people feel they have been willing to do so in the past."

She also believes the Island Council is major step. "I think having their own governance is going to make a significant change," she said.

Those on the opposing side of the Peaks Island secession debate disagree about the significance of the actions taken by the council.

By providing money for parking and the Island Council, the city went beyond what was requested of them by the state and local government committee, according to Gene Taylor, a Peaks Island resident and a member of the group opposing secession, Solutions Not Secession. "In my opinion, I think the secession movement is dead at this point," Taylor said.

But Mike Richards, co-chair of the group that worked for secession, the Island Independence Committee, said the city's three proposals are the same as those presented to islanders before the June secession vote.

Richards said the resolutions do not address the fundamental problem between Portland and Peaks Island. "They are certainly no substitute for self-governance," Richards said. And a vote to support island schools is not legally binding, and could be overturned by a future council. "These resolutions aren't worth the paper they are printed on," he said.

If Augusta does not allow the island to decide for itself, the issue of secession won't go away. "It will never be over until the people of Peaks Island get to make an informed decision as to whether to govern themselves," Richards said. "This is going to be a festering wound until it is finally resolved by the people of Peaks Island."

click to enlargethe Joint Standing Committee on  State and Local Government.
the Joint Standing Committee on State and Local Government. David Tyler

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