FARMINGTON – Residents of Franklin County will likely have the option of weighing in on an issue that was cut short last year. A bill that would increase the number of County Commissioners from three to five is currently being drawn up by committee members for legislative approval. The bill would then be posed to Franklin County voters by way of referendum, likely sometime this year according to Rep. Scott Landry.
A similar bill was approved by legislation last year, but county commissioners at the time opted not to spend the money on the ballot election which the state had said they wouldn’t fund. There were no figures discussed for the event, but commissioners said they did not want to see any increase in the budget.
“The wording was weak,” Landry explained regarding last year’s attempt. “It gave them room to deny it.”
Landry is one of several committee members working on the bill, and said he believes that if passed by voters it would offer a more accurate representation of county-wide residents.
The three current commissioners represent three districts: Terry Brann represents District 1 which covers Carthage, Jay, Wilton, Temple, Washington and Perkins Township; Lance Harvell represents Chesterville, Farmington and New Sharon as District 2; and Clyde Barker sits as District 3 representation which covers 14 towns from New Vineyard to Eustis to Weld as well as five unorganized territories.
“The northern part of the region is more than 50 percent of the tax base. We could end up with five republicans, but that’s not the issue. It’s about accurate representation,” Landry said.
Carrabassett Valley is just one of the municipalities pushing for the bill to reach voters. Town Manager Dave Cota said all of their select board members are in support of the initiative.
“There’s not a lot of representation for the northern part of the county,” Cota said. “To be honest, some of the decisions the commissioners were making were a little disturbing.”
Cota specifically mentioned the decision to cut funding for services such as Western Maine Transportation and Greater Franklin Development Council.
In Somerset County, five commissioners work to represent residents; that change was made in 2010. Commissioner Cyprien Johnson said he thinks the decision to increase the number of commissioners was an important one.
“What was happening was two of the commissioners were having sidebar conversations, so then they knew they could pass something at a meeting.”
Johnson said the third commissioner at the time, a friend of his, was left out of those conversations and information she brought to the table would often be disregarded.
“When you have five, those kinds of things don’t happen,” Johnson said.
Harvell, who was voted in as commissioner last November to replace Charlie Webster, said he’s not in favor of the bill.
“For 150 years they’ve done this job, even back when they only had a horse to ride in for meetings. Are they saying we can’t do the job that a guy on horseback did?”
Harvell argued that if the county needs more commissioners to represent the people, then committee members should also be arguing for more senators to represent the region. He said that many of the counties with bigger populations only have three commissioners. Currently, there are four counties in Maine that have five commissioners.
“I’ve been involved with local politics for 20 years. Not once have I heard someone say they want more politicians,” he said.