SANFORD – Sanford is no longer Maine’s largest town – it’s now the state’s seventh-largest city.
In a referendum vote held with Tuesday’s general election, a majority of voters – 55.4 percent – agreed to charter amendments that will remake Sanford as Maine’s 23rd city, of 492 organized municipalities in the state.
“I had a sort of premonition it would pass, but I had no idea by how much or how little,” said Town Manager, soon to be City Manager, Steven Buck, on Wednesday, soon after the official tally was certified. “I guess in today’s middle-of-the-road politics, it was a definitive spread.”
Changes wrought by the new charter include mothballing Sanford’s traditional town meeting in place of a council form of government, with an elected mayor. However, beyond that, residents will see few practical changes. Not even the sign on Town Hall will change right away.
“It’ll need to say ‘City Hall,’ of course, but I don’t think that’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks,” said Councilor Brad Littlefield, who represented the Town Council on a Charter Commission that worked 18 months to hammer out the new governing document.
“I expect we’ll wait until warm weather when we make that change, and maybe we’ll have a nice little ceremony, or something,” said Littlefield.
Proponents of the upgrade to city status said the primary benefit would be to project a “mature” image to businesses looking to relocate.
“To be a city creates the perception of something larger and more important than a town,” said Jim Nimon, executive director of the Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council.
However, Buck stressed that, as Maine’s seventh-largest municipality, Sanford already has a solid infrastructure and planning framework in place, regardless of whether it’s known as a town or a city. Apart from what “city” may signal to others, minor matters of governance are all that will change for local residents, said Buck.
“Under the new charter, the City Council is the legislative body of Sanford,” said Buck. “But, all residents still have the same ability to address the council, on matters on or off meeting agendas, and everyone will get to vote on the budget.”
At the Nov. 13 Council meeting, Buck said, councilors are slated to create a “transition committee” to smooth the way to Jan. 1, when the new charter goes into effect.
“There are a number of elements in the new charter that were left to the discretion of future City Councils, such as how appointments will be made to the budget committee, and the timeline for public presentation of the budget,” said Buck.
Also on tap will be a debate on who among the seven council members will serve as interim-mayor from Jan. 1 until Sanford’s first mayoral election in November 2013. At that time, when the terms of Littlefield and Councilor Ken Burgess expire, one seat will be designated for the mayor, while the other will remain a three-year council position. After serving three years to Dec. 31, 2016, the mayor’s post will revert to a two-year term, with a limit of no more than three full terms to be served consecutively.
Jonathan Mapes, who sat as vice chairman of the Charter Commission, won a seat on the Sanford school board as a write-in candidate Tuesday. He notes the new mayor is slated to make “not more than 25 percent above what councilors make.” The council annually sets its own rate of pay per the charter, currently clearing $4,000 each, per year. That would make the mayoral stipend $5,000 – what the current council chairman makes, said Mapes.
Mapes also says the vision is for the mayor to serve largely the same role as the current council chairman, along with certain added ceremonial functions. But while future voters will get to pick a mayor, other posts will disappear from the ballot. Gone along with town meeting representatives is the 11-member finance committee, nine of whom where previously elected, to be replaced by a new seven-person mix of councilors and council appointees.
In place of town meeting, where any of 105 public representatives could move to amend Sanford’s $20.3 million municipal budget, spending will now me subject to an up-or-down referendum, similar to the school budget validation vote. According to Littlefield, both the finance committee and town meeting changes take place immediately.
“Anybody who was elected yesterday will not take the office and will not be seated,” he said, noting that all current office-holders will be out of jobs Dec. 31.
In one final election change, terms of the three councilors who won election Tuesday – Alan Walsh, Richard Wilkins and Fred Smith – will change when they come due again in 2016. At that time, one of the three will be shortened to a one-year term, before reverting to a three-year seat. That will ensure that, from 2017 on, two of the six council seats will be up for re-election every year.
Beyond internal matters of governance, there is nothing legal that must be done to complete the change, said Buck. Certified voting results, which stood unofficially Wednesday morning at 4,517 yes to 3,630 no, will be forwarded to the town, now city attorney and to the Secretary of State’s Office. Other than that, it’s simply a matter of updating some paperwork the next time the U.S. Census Bureau pays a call.
Apart from City Hall, no other lettering needs to change, as all gateway signs into town and all municipal vehicles simply say “Sanford.”
“I think there may be one old Parks and Recreation truck that says ‘Town of Sanford,’ but that’s it,” said Littlefield, adding that city letterhead is not stockpiled. It and the website can be updated at “no cost,” while Buck says he had staffers hold back on business card purchases until after the election.
“The goal will be to use up anything that says ‘town’ on it by the end of the year,” he said.