Peaks Island’s future “a crapshoot”

Peaks Island's future is now in the hands of state legislators – and lobbyists. (photo/Chris Busby)

Peaks Island’s future “a crapshoot” 
Bill calls for arbitration, second Island vote 

By Chris Busby

Nearly a year into the process of seceding from Portland, the future of the city’s Peaks Island neighborhood is, as a state lawmaker told islanders yesterday, “a crapshoot.”

The pro-secession Island Independence Committee (IIC) has submitted a bill to the state Legislature that calls for an arbitration panel to work out the financial details of separation, followed by a second vote on the secession question by year-round island residents.

Last June, a decisive majority of those voters, 58 percent, cast ballots in favor of pursuing the secession process. Subsequent negotiations between the IIC and city officials have stalled. The city’s representatives have insisted on discussing alternatives to secession, while the IIC has pressed for substantive discussion of the terms of separation. A recent mediation session was likewise fruitless, leading to the bill calling for binding arbitration to divide the municipal pie.

State Sen. Christine Savage, a Republican from Knox County who represents several self-governing islands, is sponsoring the bill. The Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee will hold hearings and vote on the legislation in late March or early April, followed by action by the full House and Senate this spring. 

On Feb. 10, several members of that joint House and Senate committee traveled to Peaks to meet with the IIC and members of Solutions Not Secession (SNS), a group opposed to making Peaks an independent town. Committee co-chairman Christopher Barstow, Democrat of Gorham, was in attendance, as was Republican Sen. Paula Benoit, of Sagadahoc. Democratic state representatives Stephen Beaudette, of Biddeford, Andrea Boland, of Sanford, and Teresea Hayes, of Buckfield, made the trip, as did Republican Rep. David Cotta, of China. 

The 13-member committee also includes State Sen. Joe Brannigan, a veteran Democratic lawmaker who now represents parts of Portland and Westbrook. Neither Brannigan nor any other Portland legislators attended yesterday’s meetings with islanders to discuss the next steps in the process. 

As has been typical during the often acrimonious negotiations with the city, members of the IIC and SNS held separate sessions with the lawmakers in the island’s community meeting room, and both groups took the visitors on short island tours.

The IIC faces some daunting challenges in its secession bid. Foremost among them: the lack of a detailed budgetary plan to back up their assertion that secession will lead to lower property taxes on the island without compromising public services. 

Several major factors impacting the tax rate remain unresolved, including the division of debts and assets between the city and a town of Peaks Island – particularly those associated with sewer infrastructure – and the cost of sending Peaks middle and high school students to Portland public schools or another school district in the area.

City officials’ steadfast opposition to secession is another big hurdle, as is the related prospect that state lawmakers could mandate a citywide vote on Peaks’ secession bid. If secession-by-arbitration would lead to higher property taxes for mainland residents, the effort’s defeat by Portland voters is practically assured, most observers agree.

Despite these challenges, the mood at yesterday’s IIC gathering was upbeat, even festive. The roughly 50 islanders in attendance treated the visiting lawmakers to a potluck lunch, and much of the session was taken up by mingling and friendly, informal conversation between lawmakers and secessionists. 

In remarks to the full group, IIC leader Mike Richards likened Peaks’ independence effort to American colonists seeking independence from Britain, Mainers seeking independence from Massachusetts, and Portlanders seeking secession from Falmouth in the city’s early days. There was indignation over the city’s refusal to negotiate the terms of secession – “It’s been no easier to negotiate with the City of Portland than with the Soviet Union,” remarked an IIC member with international diplomacy experience – but also confidence that secession continues to have the support of most island voters.

In a recent interview, Richards reiterated his belief that secession can benefit islanders and mainlanders alike. Even if arbitration leads to a deal entailing higher taxes for islanders in the short term, Richards said Peaks voters might still support secession given its promise of self-governance.

Let the lobbying begin

The most notable person in attendance at the IIC gathering was Severin Beliveau, the attorney and real estate magnate long recognized as a major player in state Democratic Party politics. Widely considered the most effective lobbyist in Maine, Beliveau has been retained by the IIC to lobby state lawmakers, the majority of whom are Democrats. The support of Republican Sen. Savage further strengthens the secessionists’ prospects for bipartisan support.

“Ultimately, it’s going to happen,” Beliveau matter-of-factly told the secessionists and legislators at the IIC gathering yesterday. 

By contrast, the SNS group’s gathering was more serious (they laid out post-lunch coffee and dessert snacks, but got right down to business after the tour). Several members voiced annoyance about having to take time from their busy lives to organize in opposition to the secession effort. “I feel like I’ve been hijacked by a bunch of terrorists,” one attendee complained.

SNS members stressed their belief that city officials have been responsive to their requests, allowing islanders to make decisions regarding sewer expansion, deer population control, and construction of a public restroom near the ferry landing, among other matters. 

Roughly the same number of people attended the SNS session as attended the IIC session that preceded it. Notable attendees at the SNS gathering included city attorney Gary Wood; Kelly Hasson, principal of the Peaks Island and Cliff Island elementary schools and partner of anti-secession Mayor Nick Mavodones; an off-duty Public Works employee and a uniformed Portland police officer. 

SNS members told the lawmakers the secession plan does not address high property taxes, would require an additional layer of “bureaucracy,” and threatens the health and safety of islanders by potentially leading to cuts in emergency staff and training. 

SNS has retained the services of Howe, Cahill & Company, a large Augusta-based lobbying firm headed by Bob Howe, who attended yesterday’s SNS session. Howe has over 20 years of state lobbying experience and a couple House terms under his belt; his IIC counterpart was a political powerbroker three decades ago.

Both groups are girding up for what promises to be an impassioned, and expensive, lobbying campaign in Augusta. Even the groups’ efforts to fund those campaigns have become a source of debate. 

In a recent Island Times op-ed piece, IIC representative Linda Capone-Newton reports that her organization has received over 150 donations averaging $311 each. According to political action committee finance report filings, SNS has received cash contributions from far fewer people, less than 20, though those backers have chipped in over $1,400 each, on average, she notes.

“It seems quite clear that islanders’ donations reflect the referendum vote of June 2006,” Capone-Newton wrote. 

Past filings by the IIC indicate about 40 percent of its PAC contributions come from out-of-state, seasonal residents. One fifth of SNS’s contributors had out-of-state addresses in the group’s October PAC report, but those two donors combined accounted for more than half the cash raised at that point – $12,000.

“We have been reluctant participants in this process to stop the secession movement,” wrote SNS member Gene Taylor in an editorial rebuttal. “Our fundraising is in response to the IIC’s campaign.”

Taylor notes that the IIC hired Beliveau in early 2006, months before the island vote on secession, and has set a goal to raise $80,000. Last August, having seen this figure on an IIC flyer, the SNS’s steering committee “reluctantly decided that they, too, would need to raise money to hire lobbyists,” Taylor wrote. “A goal of $50,000 was set and a lobbying firm was retained.”

Reading the tea leaves

The official text of the IIC’s bill won’t be available for several weeks, and that text could change considerably during the legislative process, so many state lawmakers – including those on Peaks last Saturday – are reserving comment until there’s more specific legislation before them. 

However, Maine Speaker of the House Glenn Cummings, a Portland Democrat, told The Bollard last fall that he opposes secession for the island. Sen. Brannigan also voiced opposition to Peaks’ secession bid when interviewed for our voters’ guide. 

Democratic State Sen. Ethan Strimling, whose district includes the island, went on record as “inclined against” secession for Peaks last fall. In an interview late last month, he again expressed doubt his legislative colleagues will agree to give islanders a second vote on the secession question.

“It’s hard for me to imagine the Legislature giving up its authority” to have the final say over the matter, Strimling said. “It’s a long shot.”

House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, Democrat from the island of North Haven (a town since the 1840s), did not respond to a request for comment.

Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic, a former Democratic state representative who served on the city’s secession negotiation team, characterized the secession effort’s chances of success as “a pretty uphill battle.” 

But Suslovic added, “It’s interesting they hired Severin Beliveau to be their lobbyist. Severin can read the tea leaves as well, if not better, than most up there. To take on a case [like Peaks’ secession], it makes me wonder, ‘What does he know that we don’t?'” 

In late January, IIC leader Richards, an attorney with the Maine law and lobbying firm Troubh Heisler, acknowledged that once lawmakers get to work on the secession legislation, “I don’t know quite what the bill will look like.” Peaks’ prospects of becoming a town “are dependent on the good sense of the legislators,” said Richards, who added, “that’s a little scary. That, to some extent, is out of our control.”

Richards said he realizes the IIC faces a steep task in the months ahead. “I like climbing mountains,” he said.

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