Commentary

Woolwich town meeting: A chance for voters to decide

Posted:  Thursday, May 7, 2015 - 8:15am
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This year’s Woolwich Town Meeting, like all town meetings in Maine, holds a combination of the mundane and the surprising (and you can’t predict which item will be in which category). It’s an educational experience like no other, and illustrates democracy in action. This year, town meeting is Wednesday, May 13 at 6 p.m. at the Woolwich Central School.

Two items on the warrant, while apparently unrelated, actually raise the same important question about what is the role of government and what is the role of an individual citizen? And both are fairly big ticket items. And both have their origins in citizen petitions.

The first (article 18) is the town’s funding for the Patten Free Library. Article 18 (a) will ask citizens if they would like to vote on the allocation ($50,688) at the June election instead of at town meeting. This would allow all-day voting and the use of absentee ballots. If article 18 (a) passes, voters will then vote on the library request on June 9, along with the vote on the RSU 1 School Budget for next year. If Article 18 (a) fails, then the library request will be voted on at town meeting under Article 18 (b). Because the town lacks a charter, this move would only be for this year, absent either another petition or action by the board of selectmen.

Warrant article 30 will ask voters to approve moving to a “pay-per-bag” system of collecting non-recyclable trash.

If passed, residents would purchase specific bags for their garbage, which would then be picked up by Pine Tree Waste on the same weekly basis. (There is no change to the bi-weekly recycling pick-up.) The income from the bag purchases goes to the town to pay for a portion of the annual bill from Pine Tree Waste, which provides curbside pick-up of both trash and recyclables.

Residents may remember that at last year’s town meeting, voters approved having the town’s Solid Waste and Recycling Committee research a “pay as you throw” system for the town and propose a plan at this year’s town meeting. Article 30 is the result of the committee’s work, which included two public meetings to get citizen input. The town will be in negotiations this coming year for a new curbside collection contract.

If article 30 passes, the board of selectmen is prepared to amend the total appropriation for trash and recycling, and reduce the amount needed to be raised by voters. This is because bag purchases provide income to the town, and therefore reduces the amount needed to be raised to pay for the service.

What do these issues have in common? In our view, both of these ask citizens to think about whether it is the responsibility of government to pay for these services, or if it’s up to the users of the service to pay for them as they use them.

These discussions have a long history in this country, and are hashed in many different venues — not only in the halls of the legislature, but in town meetings, and even in the local coffee shops.

Here’s one way to look at it: Is the library something that you consider is a service that should be available to everyone regardless of ability to pay, such as schools and roads, even if not every resident uses it? Or is it more like a utility, something that only residents who use the service should pay for?

Same thing with trash — do you think of it as a utility like an electric or heating bill, something that each household pays for based on his or her use, or is it a service that benefits the entire community, even if some “use” it more than others? The “pay-per-bag” system has the additional environmental goal of reducing landfill use.

As citizens, we have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to think about these issues in our own community. And in town meeting, we all have a voice, even if we disagree. In fact, the board of selectmen isn’t unanimous on the issues, but feel they are important enough to bring before the voters, and trust the voters to make the final decision.

Finally, these are important issues and some people may be passionate about them. Democracy thrives in a difference of opinion. And it also thrives in an atmosphere of respectful dissent and civil discourse. That’s the thoughtful way and best way to present different viewpoints and to perhaps change minds. We have no reason to expect Woolwich citizens to behave otherwise.