News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, November 3, 2011
To charter, or not to charter, that is the (local) question for Surry voters

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by Faith DeAmbrose

When voters in Surry head to the polls November 8, they will be faced with—in addition to the four referendum questions put forth statewide—a local question regarding the formation and creation of a charter commission: “Shall a Charter Commission be established for the purpose of establishing a New Municipal Charter?”

The question is on the ballot as a result of a citizens’ petition; it has failed to receive support from the town’s board of selectmen (see Packet letters to the editor, October 13 and 27).

Since its incorporation on June 21, 1803, the town of Surry has been governed under the state of Maine’s de facto charter, which essentially means adherence to the provisions set forth in state statutes.

A vote to establish a charter commission sets in motion a highly specified course of action to create a town-specific charter within a 12-month period. The length of time may be extended an additional 12 months under certain circumstances.

According to Maine Municipal Association, approximately 80 of Maine’s 492 municipalities have adopted town-specific charters.

The path to the ultimate creation of, and an up or down vote on, a charter are explained in both state statute (title 30-A, MRSA 2110-2109) and in information provided to town officials by Maine Municipal Association.

If Surry’s voters approve the creation of a charter commission, that will be only the first step in a multi-step process. A charter commission must consist of six elected members (elected at the next regularly scheduled town meeting or at a special town meeting to take place no more than 200 days after voters approve the commission) and three members appointed by the board of selectmen. The appointed members do not have to be residents of the town, and there can not be more than one municipal officer among the appointees, according to state statute.

After the commission members have been duly elected or appointed, the commission must hold a public hearing (with notice published at least 10 days prior in a newspaper having general circulation in the municipality) to “receive information, views, comments and other material relating to its function.”

In nine months’ time, a preliminary report must be drafted and circulated among the general public, with copies available from the town clerk to voters who request them.

Within 12 months, a final report must be submitted to the municipal officers and must include (1) the full text and an explanation of the proposed new charter or charter revision; (2) any comments that the commission considers desirable; (3) an indication of the major differences between the current and proposed charters; and (4) a written opinion by an attorney admitted to the bar of this state that the proposed charter or charter revision does not contain any provision prohibited by the United States Constitution, the Constitution of Maine or the general laws.

Finally, the charter must go to the legislative body of the town “at the next regular or special municipal election held at least 35 days after the report is filed.”

Surry voters will head to the polls at the town hall to weigh-in on the charter commission question, and the state referendum on November 8. Polling hours are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.