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Rockland councilors wrestle over lawmaking process, agree to change

ROCKLAND, Maine — Rockland is in desperate need of more affordable housing, but Councilor Valli Geiger said her efforts to get local legislation passed to encourage residential development have been thwarted thus far.

But other city officials say that significant measures such as proposed by Geiger need to first be vetted by staff so that when they come before the council any shortcomings would have been already addressed.

“My priorities are getting pushed back and pushed back,” Geiger said Monday night, when Mayor Louise MacLellan-Ruf proposed a new process for having major ordinance changes considered. “I’m getting my hands slapped for a process that everyone else uses.”

Traditionally, councilors submit ordinance proposals at council meetings where each is given a preliminary vote and then often sent to a city committee for review and recommendations. The council can then adopt or reject the measure as originally proposed or make changes before a formal public hearing and final vote.

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No formal vote was taken Monday, but four of the five councilors agreed that the new process would be followed going forward.

Former Councilor Joseph Steinberger later criticized the effort to have proposed legislation be reviewed first by staff.

“Incredible. The manager is proposing that she and her staff should have the power to control the council agenda, and the majority of the council seems ready to go along with it. So much for 162 years of democracy in Rockland,” Steinberger said in an email to the BDN.

At Monday’s meeting, interim City Manager Audra Caler Bell said more vetting of legislation is needed before coming before the council. She said that with the city administration short on staff because of vacancies and people on family leave, it makes sense to coordinate proposed ordinances with staff.

MacLellan-Ruf said sponsoring major legislation before it has been reviewed by the legal department or code enforcement department, for example, was putting the cart before the horse.

Councilor Larry Pritchett said that when a proposed ordinance is presented to the council in written form, the public assumes it is a done deal. Changing the process to first have the staff review a proposal and then hold a general public discussion at a council workshop before bringing a proposed ordinance to the full council would be better received, Pritchett said.

The process proposed by the mayor and manager is being used in the Waldo County city of Belfast. There, if a zoning change is proposed, it first goes to the planning board to offer its recommendations. Staff members sit on that committee and others to help with the review before any measure goes to the council for a first vote.

In Bangor, like in Rockland now, ordinance changes are voted on after a first reading before being denied or submitted to the relevant city council subcommittees or planning board for review and recommendations.

Eric Conrad, director of communications and educational services for the Maine Municipal Association, said Friday that there is no state law dictating how legislation is handled by cities but that local charters or individual council guidelines dictate the process.

Rockland’s charter states that “an ordinance may be introduced by any member at any regular or special meeting of the council.”

At the end of Monday’s meeting, Geiger agreed to wait until after the November election when two councilors will be elected to have her proposed zoning changes considered by the council. Her proposal for a food sovereignty ordinance also was put on hold to go through the new process.

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