‘We are not changing the world here tonight, gentlemen, we are putting something on the ballot’

Rockport leaders want a rewrite on library referendum before placing on November ballot

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 11:30pm

    ROCKPORT — Voting 3 to 2, the Rockport Select Board declined a request from the Library Committee to place a nonbinding referendum on the November ballot that would have asked Rockport citizens their opinion about building a new library on the former Rockport Elementary School site on West Street. Instead, the board voted unanimously to work Monday evening at its regularly scheduled meeting to augment the referendum language to include options for voters to consider.

    The votes followed a three-hour public hearing Aug. 5 at the Rockport Opera House. The hearing drew 118 citizens to the auditorium, where they lined up and delivered two hours worth of public testimony. In all, 44 citizens spoke for three minutes each, and some with great passion, about the library’s future, the wording of the referendum, and whether it should appear before townspeople at the polls. 

    Some advocated directly for a new library at the RES site, describing cramped conditions of the existing library, inadequate parking, and the need to serve Rockport residents in all parts of town. Others called for placing the referendum on the ballot purely for democratic reasoning. Let the voter decide, they said.

    There were those, on the other hand, who said the referendum language was too limiting and failed to serve the electorate. And there were citizens who want the library to remain where it is, in the village as a community anchor. 

    The referendum — “Do you agree that the town of Rockport should develop a plan for a new library on the RES site, provided that the current ball fields are preserved and pending community input on design and budget?” — had been crafted by the Rockport Library Committee, an elected board of five citizens.

    The committee’s chairman Kathleen Meil had asked the Rockport Select Board July 14 to place it on the November ballot, saying, “the Library Committee respectfully requests that all Rockport voters have the opportunity to vote for or against developing a plan for a new library on a portion of the RES site, adjacent to the ball fields, this November.”

    The Library Committee had said it needed public input from a broad range of townspeople before it could consider how to move forward with either pursuing plans for a new library at the RES site, expanding at the existing site, or considering something else entirely.

    By the end of the Aug. 5 meeting, board member Tracy Murphy and Chairman Bill Chapman voted to place it on the ballot; board members Geoffrey Parker, Ken McKinley and Charlton Ames opposed the measure.

    “Our decision is whether or not to put this on the ballot,” said Murphy. “I believe my job is to put it on the ballot. It doesn’t mean I support it, it means I believe it goes on the ballot.”

    “I don’t like the way the question is worded,” said McKinley. He said the board “could make some minor changes to it to preclude closing off options” amd perhaps get a better mandate on the question.

    He said: “The question as it is currently worded is a yes or no, and closes off option of the current site. Personally, I don’t think we want to do that yet.”

    Just prior to the meeting, the board was presented with a petition signed by more than 200 people requesting that the referendum move forward to voters. That petition read: “On Aug. 5, 2014, there will be a public meeting before the Town of Rockport select board on whether or not the following warrant should appear on the Nov. 4, 2014 ballot.... If you support the right to vote on whether the RES site should be the site for a new library, please sign below:”

    The board also cited the number of letters and emails that had arrived at the town office concerning the issue. According to the tally, 42 wrote in favor of putting the measure on the ballot, 17 against doing so, and two neither for or against.

    But after a feisty discussion about the referendum language, the board split in its opinion.

    Timeline of the library debate

    Debate over the future of Rockport’s library has been heavy since last year, when the Library Committee posed the idea of moving the library from its current site near Memorial Park and building a new library on the town-owned RES site.

    The library had received a $15,000 grant from the Davis Family Foundation to explore expansion and then its governing committee held a workshop with the town’s Select Board to discuss the idea of moving.

    July 2013: After a contentious meeting, citizens agreed to explore how it might be possible to enlarge the library on its current site.

    November 2013: voters approved a measure that would allow expansion into the shoreland zone (a perennial brook runs along one side of the library) for this specific proposal.

    March 2014: The Library Committee appointed nine residents to a steering committee, charging them with researching and advising about the options of renovating the existing library or constructing a new one.

    The Library Committee consists of citizens who have been elected to it. That committee asked citizens who were interested in the issue to serve on its ad hoc steering committee.

    The Steering Committee originally consisted of Richard Anderson (resigned, replaced by Dave Jackson), Nell Dailey (resigned, replaced by Ames Curtis), Warren Erickson, Carole Gartley, Peter Hall, Bill Leone (resigned, replaced by Staci Coomer), Judy Lindahl, Pat Messler, Jan Rosenbaum (Chairman), Charlton Ames (Select Board, Ex Officio), Rick Bates (Town Manager, Ex Officio), Bill Chapman (Select Board, Ex Officio), Ann Filley (Acting Library Director, Ex Officio), Kathleen Meil (Library Committee Chairman, Ex Officio).

    June 2014: The committee sifted through data associated with eight potential sites, using 11 criteria to rank them. Those sites included:

    1. The existing library site

    2. Memorial Park, across Limerock Street from the library

    3. The combined site (current library property + Memorial Park)

    4. RES - the now-vacant Rockport Elementary School site

    5. CMCA building

    6. Route 1 (available large commercial sites on Rt 1)

    7. Camden Hills Regional High School library

    8. Rockport Properties site (the vacant building site on Central street abutting the Shepard Building, adjacent to Mary Lea Park)

    “Five fell away, leaving three possible sites,” said Chairman Jan Rosenbaum.

    The committee then finished its 38-page report and delivered it to the Library Committee, suggesting it should consider additional criteria in making its decision. 

    “I agree with Ken,” said Ames. “I prefer to think about better wording.”

    What that wording will include was not specified in the conversation; however, the intent by some board members was to add options to the language.

    Ames said he was gratified to hear that the library needs to expand universally, but added that the library needs to establish a building program statement, and needs professional help in crafting that.

    He said there is a feeling of need to vote, but that there also needs to be an element of choice put into the referendum.

    Parker said the the biggest problem with the referendum was its “lack of specificity and does not give us enough information.”

    While Parker posed the idea of one question with multiple choices, others on the board countered that too many choices could dilute the response.

    “What happens if it comes out 33, 33, 34?” asked Chapman.

    “Multiple choice is not a clear answer, and will muddy the waters,” said McKinley. He said toward the end of the discussion, “I don’t think it has to be terribly different from what it is now.”

    Ames said, “I feel similarly, get something on the ballot that will help and not hinder.”

    Meanwhile, Murphy opposed any adjustments to the referendum language, maintaining that the Library Committee was autonomous from the Select Board and its proposed referendum ought to be included on the ballot as written.

    “We have been around this particular block over the last couple of years,” she said. “Most of the additions to the building we currently have were indeed planned and paid for by the Library Committee and the trust fund.... We have a duly elected Library Committee that serves at basically the same level that we do. I am loath to stick our nose in what I see is their business.”

    She was adamant that the question go before the voters as written, and by the end of the hour-long discussion, she said: “We live in the U.S. and we all get one vote. It’s the people who show up on election day. I do not understand how we cannot put something on the ballot because we want to talk about it more. We are not changing the world here tonight, gentlemen, we are putting something on the ballot.”

    “In a way I agree with Tracy,” said Chapman. “We need to show leadership.”

    The board agreed that the November 2014 elections would be drawing many voters to the polls, given the three-way race for governor, as well as competitive races for Congressional and state candidates. In 2012, more than 2,500 registered Rockport voters went to the polls, in a town with a total population of approximately 3,300 (2010 Census).

    What to do about the Rockport Public Library has occupied town discourse for more than a year, and according to some, it is polarizing the community.

    While there are proponents of moving the library to the former RES site on West Street, there are also opponents who want to keep the public facility in the village, on its current site, or annex the Center for Maine Contemporary Art gallery, which has been housed in the building that once was the town’s old fire station. CMCA is now in the process of moving to Rockland.

    The public conversation about the library’s future has been contentious.

    Rockport resident Heaven Bartlett was the first to speak Aug. 5, and she urged citizens to reduce the level of acrimony and “be a better town.”

    Stephen Smith said he was concerned about the language of the amendment, and suggested the Library Committee or selectmen hire a professional consultant to the library industry to conduct a needs analysis.

    Helen Shaw recognized the thorough municipal process, and urged the select board to consider all public input.

    Diana Castle said she supported the referendum. “I am a working mother,” she said. “I hardly ever use the Rockport library. That’s unfortunate.”

    How to make it more usable to the town, and to create more for the community so that it supports families, children and a diverse population, she asked.

    Doug Lawson said the town needed to weigh the cost and benefits of moving the library, as well as keeping it at the same site.

    The cost analysis was missing, he said. 

    “I think what we have is a benefit analysis,” he said. “In the spirit of the [Rockport Comprehensive Plan 2004] plan there should be a cost analysis. It’s a pocket book issue and should be treated as such.”

    He proposed different language for the ballot.

    Constance Gibbons registered disapproval of the Library Committee’s proposal and asked the select board to delay the article until professional research and associated cost analysis could be conducted.

    Sally Cook said she agreed with the need for a realistic cost comparison before scrapping the existing library.

    More thoughtful investigation is needed, she said.

    Karen Lindahl said it was untrue that parking was not an issue at the existing library.

    She said she had a hard time finding a safe parking spot from which to carry books, a baby and diaper bags.

    “For five years I went elsewhere,” she said. “Once inside, there no easy place to nurse or change babies. And, she said, the space is not good for people with disabilities.

    “I am upset with how people are dismissing the needs of our youth,” she said. “When my children prefer to go to another library, that saddens me.”

    “Did you know children are turned away from programs for lack of space,” she asked. “This is a public space and should be easily accessible for everyone.”

    Marti Stone said she supported the referendum’s inclusion on the ballot.

    “I have a strong sense of Maine culture and the issues change can bring,” she said. “I believe that if we ask people to serve on committees, we owe them the respect of following their recommendations.”

    Ken Gaulin said he would be saddened to see the library move out of village.

    “We have an identity as a place,” he said. “We already sadly lost CMCA to Rockland. There is the bigger is better culture. I believe more thoughtful is better, not bigger is better.”

    Bill Leone said that with the potential loss of the library in the village, along with the loss of CMCA, “Rockport will be negatively impacted. This is a bad thing for all of Rockport.”

    He said, “The amendment is not ready for prime time. It does not inform voters on size and cost of library. Voters deserve to know what financial obligations are attached to the article.”

    Nancy Ames Curtis said she supported the Library Committee’s referendum.

    “In a democratic society, a community-wide vote should be mandatory,” she said. The “nonbinding referendum must be placed on the ballot. It allows to people to vote on the development of the plan and then decide whether it should be built. Let the people speak.”

    Pat Messler, who served on the library committee’s subcommittee that researched potential sites, urged that the referendum be placed on the ballot.

    “The difference of opinion has become polarizing in town, but the two groups still only make up a fraction of the voters,” she said. “The decision must be made by all voters in town. The nonbinding referendum will tell us whether the voters want us to use the site for a new library.”

    Robert Baldwin said it should not go to the voters, and needed more financial facts. 

    Peter Johnson said he represented his family in speaking before the Select Board.

    “The future of our library is vital to the future of Rockport,” he said. “All citizens should have right to speak their wishes through a referendum. My family believes the facility is no longer adequate. The vacant RES site is a unique gift.

    Jan Rosenbaum said, “I’m the guy who wrote the report with colleagues. Nobody has ever asked me what I’d like to do. In the end we vote.”

    He said the referendum would be but one step to another debate, and urged the article get placed on the ballot. He cited the horrifying national trends of efforts to reduce voter representation across the country.

    Fran Hodgkins spoke about the need for a municipal library to serve all constituents.

    “Put the measure on the ballot and let everyone have their say,” she said.

     Warren Zeliger said the town should vote on the issue in November.

    “The town is currently at an impasse,” he said. “....Most importantly we learn what the majority of rockport residents want, something we cannot and do not know until a vote. Until then we are perpetuating an unproductive and divisive media campaign that could have serious repercussions far into the future.”

     Rebekah Woodworth supported placing referendum on November ballot.

    She said she was saddened by the hostility of some who want to keep the library in the center of the village.

    “We haven’t made a lot of noise because we believed in the process,” she said. “There is no hidden agenda, no conspiracy. We are unable to move forward because of a few dozen objectionists.... You just need to put the question on the ballot. Let us vote.”

    Tom Murphy said: “Do we have the right to vote on this or not? We voted on the last ordinance [in November, concerning the shoreland zoning classification of the library] change to keep our options open. The same is for this nonbinding referendum. You can’t plan unless you know what is going on. Find out what the people want.”

    Paul Charbonneau said it was a false premise that the town cannot expand on the current site.

    “There is evidence you can expand on the current site,” he said.

    He said the ballot question should be specific and encouraged a encourage companion question, ‘do you favor renovating current site?’

    Judy Lindahl said she wanted the referendum on the ballot.

    The public has followed the conversation and wants to be counted where it decides important issues, at the polls.

    “To yield to pressure of a small group of folks would set a bad precedence,” she said. “It is time to vote.”

    Bill Freeman said the homework has yet to be completed, because “the wording is specific to RES site.”

     Bob Duke, who has lived near the library for 37 years, said there was frustration with parking in the village.

    “Live there and you realize it,” he said. He supported the issue going to a vote.

    Jim Ruddy said he did not support the referendum going to the ballot “mainly because of the weakness of the question itself. What we have before us is just not quite clear. Why aren’t we voting on the ballfields separately? Why can’t it say approval over input.”

    Plus, he said, there were no details.

    Related stories 

    Rockport Public Library hearing: Aug. 5 terms of engagement

    Rockport Select Board sets Aug. 5 for library public hearing

    Rockport leaders pre-meet, talk about library hearing logistics

    Rockport leaders consider controversial library vote, water quality, real estate acquisition

    Rockport subcommittee recommends RES land as library site

    Debate over future of Rockport Public Library: Expand on-site or build on former school land


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