CAMDEN — The Select Board voted unanimously Nov. 3 to reject two different citizen petitions that call for public votes on the future of Montgomery Dam.

Board members said it is premature to hold such votes. Town Manager Audra Caler said it was too early to make decisions about the dam and much more work needs to be done.

Board member Marc Ratner called for a workshop at the Opera House to discuss, ask questions and hear from a wide range of experts on the issues involved in making any decision about the dam.

“I don’t think the Select Board has done a very good job of doing what the town wants,” he said. “Let’s have a serious workshop at the Opera House with all the scientists. People can submit questions, ask questions from the audience, so everyone will be able to hear everything and ask every question they want,” he said.

The petitions

Select Board Chair Bob Falciani introduced the two petitions as diametrically opposed. One “petition reinforces what we are trying to do,” he said, referring to language submitted to the board by Barb Ohland. He described the Save the Dam Falls petition as “trying to circumvent that process by not allowing it to go forward.”

Save the Dam Falls calls for preserving, repairing and maintaining the dam. This group collected signatures from registered voters at the polls in Camden Nov. 2, a legal requirement for holding a citizen referendum vote.

Ohland submitted revised language for a petition to the board Oct. 30. It calls for allowing the Select Board to seek grants to improve river water quality, reduce flood risk and facilitate fish passage and removal of the Montgomery Dam.

Rejection of the petitions by the board does not stop public votes from taking place.

When municipal officials receive a written petition signed by a specified number of voters in the town, they “shall” place the article in the next warrant or call a special town meeting within 60 days for its consideration, according to State law.

The controversy

Falciani said the board is committed to pursuing recommendations of the Megunticook River Feasibility Report, as stated in the report’s executive summary.

The report recommends removal of the Montgomery Dam with river restoration to provide the “greatest benefits to fish passage, flood risk, ecological conditions and resiliency,” and “significantly reduced operation, maintenance and repair requirements.”

Some members of Save the Dam Falls said the board failed to hold public discussion about options for the Montgomery Dam, and this is the reason the group formed. Two options — partial removal of the dam and rebuilding and maintaining it, both combined with fish passage — are included in a 2019 feasibility study on the dam. This study was commissioned by the Select Board.

Board members, public comment

During the Nov. 3 discussion board members agreed on rejecting both citizen petitions.

Board member Matt Seigel asked both sides to consider withdrawing their petitions to continue discussion. “I’m new to this Board. I’d like to learn and hear from the experts, to hear questions from the community, before I’m put in a position to have to either accept or reject petitions.”

Ratner supported withdrawal of the petitions, postponing a decision, or turning both down.

Vice Chair Alison McKellar said there are some people on both sides of the issue who have looked into things or done their research and made their decisions. She “believes the vast majority of Camden residents are somewhere in the middle and just trying to make sense of this. We’re at the beginning of a conversation and not the end of it,” she said.

Susan Reider and Ohland spoke in support of the Select Board’s direction. Reider attended the board’s Oct. 14 information event at Harbor Park, with experts in river restoration, fish passage and climate change resiliency available to answer questions. She liked being able to talk to the experts, ask questions, and exchange information.

Seven members of Save the Dam Falls, including Karen Grove, Tom Rothwell, Steve Mischissin and Ken Gross spoke in favor of preserving Montgomery Dam.

Gross talked about the value the petition has already had in getting the discussion going.

“A good decision is by definition a decision that everyone feels that they have had a chance to participate in,” he said.

Gross and other members of the group said they like the idea of holding a meeting in the Opera House.

McKellar wanted to know what people wanted to get out of further discussion, when they had already decided their position.

When she asked Gross, who is the Library Assistant Director, if he was “speaking on behalf of the library right now?” a loud outburst of complaint came from the audience.

Falciani attempted to quiet the group, and when that failed, threatened “to empty this room if your actions keep going.”

Gross clarified he was not speaking on behalf of the library and is not authorized to do so.

Board member Sophie Romana, was elected in June, as was Siegel. Attending the meeting remotely from Dakar, in West Africa, she commented, after voting, on the complexity of the issues, saying she was happy to hear the discussion and points of view shared and looks forward to understanding the positions in the future.

Officials’ support for dam removal

For several years, the Select Board has supported removal of the dam. The board acts as a governing body and can hold meetings only when three or more members are present.

In the past year, board members actively supported, or raised no objection to, developing the plan to remove the dam, in preparation for a public vote.

Board members have unanimously supported Caler’s work to oversee completion of a design of what the Montgomery Dam site could look like after dam removal.

Until recently, a looming grant deadline was cited as an urgent reason for design completion. On Oct. 19, Caler announced an extension of the grant deadline.

This summer the board attempted to get endorsement from the Camden Public Library Board of Trustees on removal of part of a massive wall in Harbor Park, which trustees oversee. The wall connects to the dam and is part of the dam sluiceway.

Also, during the summer, Falciani and McKellar led three community forums on Zoom, where they sought public comment on post-dam removal designs drawn by Inter-Fluve.

Members of the public with diverse views participated. At the third forum, opponents of dam removal were told their views were not welcome.

The post-Montgomery Dam removal drawing by Inter-Fluve, was shown at the forums, and later rejected by a small group of Library Trustees working with town officials. It shows a wide swath of the Megunticook River flowing over the ledge above Camden Harbor, and over the lower part of Harbor Park. It is still displayed on the town government website.

Reports, forums and livestream recordings of Select Board meetings can all be viewed from the town of Camden website.