CAMDEN — An attorney representing the Save the Dam Falls Committee has asked the town to put the question of preserving the Montgomery Dam on the November election ballot. If not, the group plans to call a special town meeting to decide the issue, independent of the Select Board.

Camden attorney Paul Gibbons sent a letter to the Select Board on June 13 that states:

I represent the Save the Dam Falls Committee. My clients are going to hold a special town meeting on September 27 on their petitioned article, a copy of which is attached here. I write to you in an effort to see if we can avoid having a special town meeting in a way that will resolve my clients’ issues. We request the Selectmen to place my clients’ petitioned article before the voters at this November election.

The goal of my clients is to have the voters have an opportunity to vote on whether or not to preserve Montgomery Dam. The actions that you have taken are done to prevent that ever from happening. It is inevitable that you will be asking the voters to approve a restoration project on Megunticook River which would include the removal of the Montgomery Dam. Even your own engineers advise that it is possible to restore the Megunticook River without the removal of Montgomery Dam. You are going to deny the voters the opportunity to vote on whether to preserve Montgomery Dam.

Since the voters are likely to be denied the right to vote on this single issue, my clients are pursuing a special town meeting in accordance with the law. Please let me hear from you within the next two weeks so I can advise my clients to keep pursuing this special town meeting.

It is time to cooperate and to not deny the voters an opportunity to vote on whether or not to preserve Montgomery Dam.

Committee members turned in 21 pages of petition signatures representing more than 500 registered voters on Feb. 22 at the town office.

They wanted Camden voters to decide the question at the June 14 town meeting, “Shall the Town of Camden protect, preserve, maintain, and repair the existing Montgomery Dam near Harbor Park in Camden?”

On April 5, the Select Board voted to throw out this petition and a competing petition submitted by the group Restore Megunticook.

Save the Dam Falls Committee members consulted with attorney Gibbons and learned there is recourse from the Select Board’s decision. A notary public can call for a town meeting in the town on behalf of citizens without the Select Board’s involvement.

It is almost like the difference between a citizen’s arrest and one made by professional police officers.

The Select Board has for some time been studying the issue of river restoration. Residents in the business community downtown, members of Save the Dam Falls Committee and others have pushed back on the discussions arguing the Montgomery Dam and the look of the Camden waterfront are vital for the tourism and business of the town, and that they represent historically important features that need to be preserved.

Others disagree, supporting the idea of improving the environment by restoring the river, establishing fish passage, and reducing the risk of flooding especially as water levels rise due to climate change. Another issue is that town employees have to operate the dams, which no longer generate power for any purpose, and the town is saddled with the costs of maintaining the dams.

One of the key arguments from those who disagree with the Save the Dam Falls Committee is that this is early in the process and the town is still studying the issues. They argue the Save the Dam Falls group wants to end the discussion before it begins.

Select Board member Alison McKellar wrote in her column in The Camden Herald June 16, “Any change to the Montgomery Dam will not go forward without a public vote.”

She argues the Select Board cannot decide on the dam by themselves.

“The next big decisions we make about the dam will be the result of robust community discussion and a vote by a lot more people than just those who can show up for an in-person town meeting,” she went on.

She argues the only thing the town is doing now is studying the options.

“The town attorney recommended that the Select Board not put opposing questions on the ballot because it would be extremely confusing to voters and would disrupt a process that had already gone through the voter-approved budget process to evaluate multiple options…” she said.

At some point, the message to the Save the Dam Falls Committee was that one recourse is to replace members of the Select Board who they disagree with.

Right before the June election, Save the Dam Falls posted on Facebook a message titled: “Begin to replace the Select Board.”

“Vote June 14! Thanks to Jo Ann Simon for this succinct post: Unfortunately, the Select Board seems to be staunchly in favor of removing the dam and ‘restoring’ the river. It won’t look like much if they have their way. We, in the town, WANT a VOTE, which the Select Board is hemming and hawing about scheduling. I think if it comes up for a vote, the Camden residents will vote to KEEP the dam!”

The post continues: “The current Select Board deserves to be replaced for their anti-democratic fervor and their denial of the wishes of the townspeople to have a voice. And as the town attorney points out, our recourse is at the ballot box. Please vote to put fresh voices on the Select Board. There are some mighty fine candidates running.”

On Tuesday, residents voted to replace incumbent Select Board member Marc Ratner with challenger Tom Hedstrom. In the same election, residents voted to approve changes to the charter to vote via secret ballot rather than open town meeting to approve the budget.

A group spokesperson said June 16, “We are very encouraged by the town vote Tuesday — at the first opportunity, one of the four Select Board members who voted against the citizens’ petitions was defeated. We continue to hope for, and plan for, a town-wide vote on saving the waterfall.”

The special town meeting in September will be at the Opera House.

Select Board member responds June 19:

McKellar sent a response to a question for this story on June 19, saying in part:

“My personal hope (and I am not speaking for the board) would be to enshrine, via a warrant article in November, that changes to the Montgomery Dam will be subject to a public vote at the polls. This has always been true in my mind, but I understand the concern that it may be packaged into a larger question, and that some will miss out on the opportunity to vote on this specific aspect of river restoration.

“I do not believe it is appropriate to ask people to vote before they know the short and long term costs of all options, but I have heard the message that many people would like the Town to more fully develop cost estimates and design alternatives to dam removal.

“I agree that this will allow a more effective evaluation of all options and I am hopeful that there is a golden compromise that will still meet the criteria of a nature based solution while maintaining the aesthetic elements that are most enjoyed. I had a couple very nice conversations with STDF members on Tuesday.

“I do believe it makes sense to have the town formally commit to placing the decision in the hands of voters. One way we might do this is to ask voters in November to approve a provision that would require all alterations and repairs to the Montgomery Dam to be presented to voters in a separate warrant article whenever a proposal or a range of options is ready.

“The choice we make at the Montgomery Dam cannot be made without awareness that it has implications for the viability and fundability of any of the projects in the rest of the watershed but that doesn’t mean it all has to be voted on together. There is a significant amount of private property involved also, so separating a vote on the Montgomery Dam from the rest of it is reasonable in my mind.”