The Limington Free Press
The People of Limington's On-Line Newspaper for News and Opinion
April 16, 2000     Volume 1 Number 5     Index

Sign Controversy Update...

Also later in this paper:
Editorial: Secrecy at Town Hall
Results of the Personal Property Tax Poll

In the last issue:
SAD 6 Continues to Wrestle with Bomb Threats
Is the Personal Property Tax Anti-Business?
Editorial: SAD 6 to Escalate War on Bomb Threats

Jump to April 19th special edition of the Limington Free Press

Sign Controversy Update...
CEO says sign is not grandfathered and no permit can legally be issued.
However, he has issued no order to remove the sign either.

by Dick Jarrett

    For the past few weeks, Code Enforcement Officer Freeman Abbott has been struggling with how to handle the problem of the sign belonging to D.R.Hubbard that was moved from its old location to a new piece of land within the Commercial district.  (See the March 23rd edition of the Limington Free Press.) The goal of the ordinance adopted by the voters in 1997 is to phase out free standing signs in the Commercial district and instead promote a less cluttered approach where the signs are to be located on the commercial buildings themselves.  Business owners have until 2002 to relocate their pre-1997 signs to their buildings.  Any new, reconstructed, or structurally altered sign must follow the 1997 guidelines.  The sign at Jongerden's is an exception and may remain forever because the CEO issued a permit for that sign by mistake and no abutters challenged the construction within the legally prescribed time period.  In March, the voters decisively defeated a proposal which would have allowed free standing signs up to 25 feet tall in the Commercial district.

    Back in November, the Hubbards had applied to the Planning Board for site plan review for "Moving 26 x 42 single story office building back onto a rear lot from present location."  Neither the application nor the submitted site plan map had any mention of the sign.  The board approved that proposal in December.  At the April 13th Planning Board meeting, Darryl Hubbard asked the board if that permission to move his building included permission to move his sign.  Wendy Walker, chairperson of the Limington Planning Board, replied that "If it (the sign) were mentioned on the application, we would have had a discussion about it and we probably would have come up that we can't allow a free standing sign because we can't go looser than the restrictions in the zoning ordinance."

    CEO Abbott said that before the sign ever went up and before it was an issue "I told Diane (Hubbard) that I couldn't issue a sign permit."  Darryl Hubbard countered with "I didn't ask for one ... I told you I didn't need it."

    Earlier this month, Abbott told the Limington Free Press that he believed he could not issue a sign permit for such a sign but just to make sure, he was going to get legal advice from the town lawyer, Jim Haddow.  He also believed that if the sign were staying in the same spot, then it would be grandfathered but since it is not in the same place, it is not grandfathered.  As of April 13th, he had received a reply from Mr. Haddow and copies were distributed to the board at the meeting.  Abbott summarized the letter for the board and the public and said that the town lawyer said the same thing that he (Abbott) had maintained all along.

    When asked about the current status of the sign, CEO Abbott, whose responsibility it is to enforce the ordinance, said: "I didn't tell him to take it down.  I just told him that I couldn't issue a permit for it."  With proper notification, the town has the authority to levy fines for non-compliance with the ordinance at up to $100 per day.  Both Abbott and Walker said that the Hubbards could go to the Appeals Board.  Abbott added: "I hope they overturn it and say it's great."

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Secrecy at Town Hall
Is the Planning Board to become a secret tribunal where only the members are allowed to know the rules?

Editorial by Dick Jarrett

    The website is under attack again for bringing up timely information about the activities at Town Hall.  So it is no surprise that the selectmen are looking for ways to silence this source of news for the Townspeople.  The catalyst for this latest assault on the Limington Free Press is the Memorandum published here in the March 9th edition.  That memorandum was actually furnished by the selectmen and was distributed at the public Planning Board meeting that same night.  The public meeting was the source used by the Limington Free Press.  The memorandum was also included with the official Planning Board minutes of that meeting that were mailed later.  Although the selectmen were the ones who made this document public, they are apparently now claiming that this is a privileged communication that never should have been published.

    While the selectmen certainly have the right to keep communications between themselves and the town lawyer confidential, they cannot use the text of a letter publicly in an attempt to influence people and then turn around and try to close the barn door after the horses have escaped.  If they want to preserve their lawyer-client privilege, they cannot distribute a letter publicly and at the same time claim that it is a private communication.  They cannot have it both ways.

    The reason that the selectmen are so upset has little to do with the actual act of publication of the letter they furnished.  The reason that the selectmen are upset is that the letter demonstrated beyond a doubt that the town lawyer is being used for influence purposes rather than for real legal advice.  How many times have you heard the selectmen say at a public hearing that they have obtained this or that legal opinion from the town lawyer?  This statement is used time and time again as a discussion killer; there is rarely another lawyer knowledgeable on the subject who is present and who can call their bluff.  And the actual letter is almost never allowed to be subjected to public scrutiny.  The obviously incorrect information on which Mr. Haddow based this particular memorandum could have had only one source: the selectmen themselves who asked for the opinion.  Computer professionals have a phrase for this phenomenon: Garbage In, Garbage Out.  Only in this case, the Taxpayers of Limington are paying over $28,000 a year to purchase this questionable material.

    But the story does not end here.  In an effort to further the secrecy at the Limington Municipal Complex, last week the selectmen sent a confidential note to the chairperson of the Limington Planning Board, Wendy Walker.  The note was so secret, that even the subject matter could not be disclosed or made public in any way.  Neither myself nor any reporter at the Limington Free Press has seen a copy of this top secret document.  However at the April 13th Planning Board meeting, Ms. Walker requested that an unscheduled Executive (secret) Session of the board be held but that she was not allowed to distribute the note because, according to Ms. Walker, "It says so right on the bottom of it."  Fortunately for the people of Limington, the State of Maine has a very good Public Right to Know Law and the rules for Executive Sessions severely restrict the use of secret meetings.  One of the requirements is that the public motion to enter Executive Session must "indicate the precise nature of the business of the executive session."  So although secret sessions are permitted for certain very special circumstances, at a minimum the subject matter must be stated publicly.  This State Law placed Ms. Walker in a quandary.  The selectmen forbade her from disclosing the topic in public, but in order to discuss the matter secretly, she had to at least announce the forbidden subject matter in the public meeting.  Further discussion elicited that this was actually two issues: a personnel issue involving myself and a legal issue involving the distinction between public and private documents.  By the rules of the Planning Board, legal advice can only be obtained from the board's lawyer.  And by statute, Executive Sessions to discuss legal matters can only be held with the board's lawyer present.  Although the personnel issue could have been discussed, it was decided to wait until Mr. Haddow could be present to discuss either of the two issues.

    A disturbing thought is that if the criteria for what is public and what is private is only described in secret session, then the public will never know what the guidelines for Planning Board members are.  Applicants will never even know the kinds of information that are being used to rule on their proposals before the board.  I question why these general discussions cannot be held in public and the guidelines be made public.

    The board is clearly in need of guidance in this area.  For example, the primary reason that communications between the Town and its lawyer should be held confidential is that the last person who should see such a document is someone or their lawyer who is on the other end of a potential lawsuit.  Prior knowledge of the Town's legal strategy could be devastating to the Town's legal position.  Concerning the actual letter from Mr. Haddow described in the "Sign Controversy Update" story in this same issue, Ms. Walker stated at the end of the meeting that that letter is considered "work product" and is not for public knowledge and especially not for public distribution on the internet (i.e. this website).  Yet when Darryl Hubbard earlier asked "Can I get a copy of the lawyer's letter to give to my lawyer? My lawyer disagrees with that..." an interesting exchange took place.  Member Diane Hubbard (Darryl's wife), who had quite properly excused herself from discussions on the issue, said that all of the board members received a copy and that "I'll share mine with you".  This brings into doubt the real motivation behind the selectmen's concern:  Is the purpose of restricting this information to protect the lawyer-client privilege (which is shattered by such sharing of confidential information with an opposing lawyer) or is the real reason to shield the selectmen's actions from the public view?

    As to the unspecified charges against me, an elected Planning Board member, we will have to wait and see.  There is no question that the charges relate to this website.  Chairperson Walker is clearly anxious to resolve the issues and said that "the tension is building and needs to be dealt with ... Do we have the right to ask anybody to step down because the conflict is there?  Let's solve this."

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Links to the State of Maine's Freedom of Access Laws:
      Title 1: Chapter 13: Public Records and Proceedings
      Title 1: § 401 Declaration of Public Policy
      Title 1: § 402 Definitions (Public Proceeding and Records)
      Title 1: § 405 Executive Sessions
The Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press:
      Tapping Official's Secrets

Results of the Personal Property Tax Poll

by Dick Jarrett

    The March 30th issue of the Limington Free Press ran a story about the Personal Property Tax and its effect on local businesses.  Of the hundreds of people who viewed the survey, 95 respondents chose to answer the questions.  Although the survey is not scientific, it is very interesting to note that not a single respondent felt that the Tax did not hurt business in Limington.  The results were almost as one-sided on the question of fairness with only two respondents feeling that the Tax was administered equitably while 15 had no opinion.

QuestionYESNONo Opinion
Do you feel that the Personal Property Tax hurts business in Limington? (93)
Do you feel that the Personal Property Tax is administered fairly? (2)
    In response to the tax, one person who had contemplated starting a part-time home business said that, because of the fee, he would just stick with his day job.  Although the tax would have probably been just $50 to $100 per year, that extra expense was enough to discourage this new business in town.  While the current loss to the town is minimal, had this business thrived, it could have meant new jobs and new opportunities for other Limington residents someday in the future.

Link to original article:
Is the Personal Property Tax Anti-Business?

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