2016-04-28 / Front Page

Review of Biddeford’s charter nears end of first phase

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The Charter Revision Commission is finalizing its first phase of reviewing the city charter this week and will soon begin discussions on which parts to change. Chairman Paul Therrien said the commission has reviewed the charter, article by article first, to get a detailed understanding of the document that defines how city government operates.

“A lot of it is fact-finding so that we have a clear understanding before we start making motions,” Therrien said.

Among some of the discussion points that have come up for possible changes, said Therrien, are: the roles of the fire and police commissions, requiring the city manager to submit a five-year capital improvements plan with the annual budget, limiting annual budget increases to the Consumer Price Index plus 2 percent, reducing signatures required to recall elected officials, defining department heads, annually setting aside money for property evaluations, instituting a code of ethics, requiring public comment at city council meetings, and raising the pay for city councilors and school board members.

Therrien said no action has yet been taken to propose specific amendments to the charter, but as the commission reviews it, members are beginning to get a better idea of what they would like to see changed.

“I like the way we did it, going through it first with a fine-toothed comb before making decisions,” said Ward 6 Commissioner Robert Provencher. “We just wanted to review the whole thing. I asked a lot of questions and got a lot of answers … I think it’s good.”

Therrien said the commission is open to input from members of the public and has received some suggestions, such as eliminating the mayor position or prohibiting city funds from being used for private-public partnerships. However, he added, the comments he hears the most from the public are questions about what the charter is.

“It’s amazing how many people don’t know what a charter is – it’s the people’s way of saying this is the Bible by which we run the city.”

Provencher, the commission’s vice chairman, said he ran for the Charter Revision Commission with an open mind and didn’t have any specific agenda, but is discovering points of interest through the review process.

“One thing we talked about, too, is the city council has two meetings,” Provencher said. “We should make it so the city councilmen are also the municipal officers. It’s ridiculous to have to have tWo meetings, two roll calls – lots of stuff like that. It should be interesting.”

Ward 7 Commissioner Bernard Neveux, who won election as a write-in candidate, said, “I said I would serve just to go through the process, see what’s happening, see what needs to happen.”

Neveux said he doesn’t believe the charter needs any major changes, but merely needs to be fine-tuned.

“Little odds and ends, sentences that aren’t clear to the common reader let alone the commission,” Neveux said.

Although there has been discussion of eliminating the police and fire commissions, or combining them into a public safety commission, Neveux said members of the public have been vocal in their support of the commissions.

“Right now it’s still up in the air,” he said.

Provencher said eliminating the fire and police commissions outright could prove difficult, because the last two times the charter was revised, residents voted not to remove those commissions from the charter.

“People don’t want to do that,” Provencher said. “We’re trying to do a workaround, with not having them having any power but just being able to advise the police chief and fire chief on certain matters. They could do some of the legwork, be kind of a supportive role.”

Therrien said the chain of command in the charter is often confusing or unclear. For example, he said, the city manager, city clerk, treasurer, police chief and fire chief are all defined in the charter as administrative officials. Therrien said it would make more sense for the chiefs and treasurer to answer to the city manager instead of being considered on equal standing with him.

“It appears that we understand that the chiefs should be working for the city manager, but the fire commission is a very well organized, functioning committee,” Therrien said. “Maybe there’s a way to keep the commissions and redefine their powers and duties – make it clear that chiefs are working for the city manager but the commissions are providing oversight. As a commission, you are there to make sure the chiefs are following procedures.”

Ward 4 Commissioner Dominic Deschambault agreed, saying, “I want to see that the chain of command is clear and consistent with other city departments. I see good value in citizen input and collaboration with the police and fire departments.”

At-large Commissioner Daniel Boucher, who was appointed by Mayor Alan Casavant, said he would like to change the requirement that the city manager and superintendent must reside in the city.

“I’m in favor of not having that requirement,” Boucher said. “We lose good candidates because of it.”

“In effect, what you’re doing by forcing the city manager and superintendent to live in the city, is you’re creating those positions as political positions,” Boucher said. “You’re telling them that you have to vote for the very people who set your salary and benefits package. If you want to live in the city, that’s fine, but I think it’s antiquated and injecting politics into positions that aren’t political at all. They’re really management positions.”

Residents rejected such a question the last time it was up for public vote and Mayor Alan Casavant tried unsuccessfully to make the change in the Legislature.

Boucher said requiring a five-year plan for capital improvement projects and maintenance might be a good idea because, “right now that’s one of the favorite places to cut when you have a budget, and then you fall further and further back.”

Boucher said he also heard suggestions from the public that a form of ranked-choice voting be used in elections, as is done in Portland, but the idea does not seem particularly popular among commissioners.

Therrien said members of the public have said they would like more controlled spending by the city. One possible solution, Therrien said, is to limit budget increases to the Consumer Price Index plus 2 percent, and allow for voters to approve budgets higher than that amount if needed.

Therrien said commissioners also discovered that the recall process was unfair because it requires signatures be collected from residents equaling 15 percent of the number of residents who voted in the preceding general election. Therrien said the process is unfair because councilors elected after a presidential election would be harder to recall than councilors elected after a gubernatorial election because the voter turnout is higher in presidential years. Therrien proposed reducing the number to 10 percent of the number of votes cast in the preceding gubernatorial election.

At-large Commissioner Bruce Benway, who was appointed by Casavant, has discussed annually setting aside a certain amount of money to be used for property evaluations instead of having the total cost of assessment being paid for in one year’s budget. State law requires cities to assess property values at least once every 10 years.

Although commissioners have been developing their own ideas for changes to the charter, Therrien said he believes they all joined the commission with an open mind and an interest in improving city government.

“I am not aware of anyone who ran with an agenda,” Therrien said. “I think they just felt that they wanted to serve their community and this is how they chose to serve their community. Our job is to be objective and listen to both sides and make decision on what’s best for our community.”

The commission will complete its review phase of the charter at its next meeting, Thursday, April 28 at Biddeford City Hall.

Return to top