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by Anne Berleant
An ordinance giving Brooksville residents the “right to produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local foods” will, again, be on the ballot at town meeting.
However, Brooksville’s Ordinance Review Committee, in a 9-0-1 (Peter Van der Eb) vote immediately following a February 14 public hearing, declined to recommend in favor or against the ordinance.
“Our recommendation is to let the voters decide,” said chairman Sarah Cox.
Van der Eb abstained, he said, because he felt the committee should take a stand for or against the ordinance.
In 2011, the Local Food and Community Self-governance Ordinance was put to voters at town meeting, with the committee recommending against its passage.
“Under that particular [ordinance review committee] ordinance, we were required to make a recommendation,” said Cox.
But that recommendation was included on the ballot, which “was an error on the town’s part,” said Selectman John Gray.
The ordinance failed to pass in 2011 by a nine vote margin.
The ordinance governing the Ordinance Review Committee has been revised since the last election cycle to allow the committee the choice of making, or not making, a recommendation.
Before the vote, Cox read a letter from the town attorney which stated, in part, that “the current version may give selectmen some concern in that [the local foods ordinance] is preempted at state level.”
This concern, plus whether the ordinance was the “proper tool” to achieve its goals, and potential town liability if someone became ill from food sold under the ordinance—which precludes state licensing and inspection from direct farmer-to-consumer sales—lay behind the committee’s 2011 recommendation against its passage.
Brooksville farmer Deborah Evans answered these three points, as follows in excerpts from her prepared statement:
The ordinance is unenforceable as state food laws preempt local ones: “The Authority for this Ordinance is firmly rooted in our rights to self-government as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and Amendments and the Maine Constitution…If and when a challenge to Brooksville’s right to adopt this ordinance is actually raised, it would be a constitutional question, one that can only be answered in a court of proper authority.”
Is the ordinance the “proper” tool: “There are many ‘proper’ tools…Adopting our ordinance is one tool our representatives can use to support the future health of our town.”
Potential town liability: “Because the exchanges of food covered under this ordinance are private exchanges between farmers, gardeners, bakers or chefs and their willing patrons, the town is not party to the transaction in any way.”
This satisfied Cox.
“You did a good job of answering the committee’s questions,” she told Evans.
One citizen at the hearing asked if the ordinance is endorsed by voters, whether it would be “a statement of affirmation for the principle, not a legal stance.”
Whether the ordinance is “consistent or not with state law,” said hearing moderator Robert Vaughn, “it stands as an ordinance until it is challenged.”
Given that, Vaughn said “a transaction between two individuals…doesn’t run the risk of drawing the town into a huge legal circumstance.”
In order to inform “how this fits in with what we’re doing at the state level, Representative Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville) told the 20 or so citizens at the hearing that “several” similar bills have been introduced in the current legislative session.
“That is where it should be worked on,” said Gray.