Maine Superior Court Upholds Refusal to Honor Citizens’ Petition

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Town of Brunswick recently prevailed in a case regarding the Town Council’s decision to sell a waterfront property that had been acquired through tax foreclosure. The plaintiffs, several citizens, had presented a petition to the Council which sought a referendum vote to enact an ordinance designating the property as a municipal park. However, the Council had already considered designating the property as a park and ordered instead to put it out to sale. Based on our advice, acting as the town's attorney, the Council chose not to put the question to referendum because it sought to overturn a Council order and there was no authority to do so under the charter. 

This case is a good reminder that municipal charters can strictly limit—or even eliminate—the right to citizens’ petition otherwise available under Maine law. Brunswick’s charter allows only ordinances, and not orders, to be overturned by petition. This makes sense because the Council needs to be able to transact the Town’s more routine business without concern that its every action might be overturned through referendum. Although the petitioners argued that they were seeking to enact a new ordinance, not to overturn an order, the Maine Superior Court justice found that the petition did seek to overturn a Council order and was properly barred. The Court also denied the appeal on the grounds that the Town had already sold the property by the time the case was heard.