Maine Legislature Enacts Bill Requiring Majority Approval of Voters Before Districts Sell Water

Yet more news guaranteed not to make Nestle Waters/Poland Spring particularly happy:

KENNEBUNK — A bill to regulate how local water districts enter into contracts to sell water was enacted by the state Legislature last week.

Rep. Ed Legg (D-Kennebunk) introduced the legislation, which would require any consumer-owned water utility to hold a public hearing with notice before entering into a contract to sell or lease water rights.

Although the original text also included a referendum requiring majority approval of voters in the district to enter into such an agreement, Legg is pleased with the compromise passed on Wednesday, he said.

“It was a tough political battle,” Legg said. “We made a real step forward with this bill.”

Legg said he was prompted to introduce legislation by a proposed contract between the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport & Wells Water District to sell water to Poland Spring in June 2008. Some residents in the district were opposed to the contract and organized a rally at the district’s Kennebunk office. The contract was tabled indefinitely in July 2008.

Legg said he was surprised to find that no public process is required for water utilities to enter into agreements like the Poland Spring contract. He hopes local water utilities – or the Legislature – will amend their charters in the future to require referendum for such contracts.

Norm Labbe, superintendent of the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport & Wells Water District, said last week he was comfortable with the bill that came out of the utilities and energy committee.

“It’s not very different from what the district would have done if the issue were to come up again,” Labbe said Wednesday. “We did not anticipate what happened last summer. It would be a very public process if it were to ever come up again.”

The language proposed by the Committee on Utilities and Energy requires a public meeting and notice at least 30 days before the meeting. A water district cannot enter into a contract until at least 30 days after the public meeting. Sales to existing customers or other water utilities would be exempt from the law.

Given that Nestle’s modus operandi includes flying under the radar as much as possible in rural communities (witness the behind-closed-door negotiations in McCloud, and the last-minute discoveries of contract negotiations in several Maine communities), this is clearly a step forward for Mainers wishing to retain local control of resources.

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