Charter Misconceptions

John Salisbury

There are a number of misconceptions being circulated regarding the Tuesday, June 11, 2019 vote on whether New Gloucester should create a charter commission.

  1.  Misconception:  New Gloucester citizens are voting on a town charter.

      Fact:  The question on the New Gloucester ballot is whether to create a charter commission.  It is not a vote on the specifics of the structure, ordinances or procedures to be used by our town government.

2.    Misconception:  A vote for creating a charter commission is a vote to do away with town meeting.

        Fact:  If the voters approve the creation of a charter commission there will be six persons elected by town voters to serve on the commission.  In addition, there will be three persons appointed by the board of selectmen, one of whom may be a municipal officer.  These individuals will work together to prepare the draft of a charter that is tailor-fit to the needs of New Gloucester.  They will undoubtedly be different points of view represented on the charter commission and expressed at the required public hearings.  The proposed charter will then be voted on by New Gloucester voters.  The voters will have the option to vote yes or no on whether to approve the proposed charter.

3.  Misconception:  A charter will create another level of government.

       Fact:  Currently the Town of New Gloucester has the town meeting, board of selectmen and town manager form of government.  The town meeting is the legislative body that has the authority to pass ordinances and adopt the budget.  Both the board of selectmen and the town manager perform administrative functions.  No matter what type of charter is proposed for the voters’ consideration, there will only be two functions that are performed- legislative and administrative.  There will not be an additional level of government.

4.  Misconception:  Municipalities that have adopted charters are mostly Maine cities.

       Fact:  There are only 23 cities in Maine and all have charters.  Gardiner, Calais, Hallowell and Eastport are smaller than New Gloucester.  Whether a municipality is called a city or a town is determined by how the municipality was incorporated when it was formed. There are 80 municipalities with charters, 57 are towns.  82% of municipalities with population of greater than 5,000 population have charters.

5.  Misconception:  Municipalities that operate under state statutes have the same flexibility in determining their structure and procedures as municipalities that have charters.

        Fact:  Municipalities that operate under the town government structure provided in the state statutes are limited by the options provided in the statutes.  In addition, they are subjected to the whims of the state legislature that may choose to change or tweak those options.  Municipalities that create charters under Maine’s constitutional “Home Rule” provision have the flexibility of structuring their municipal structure and procedures in the manner they choose as longer as it is not contrary to state statutes.  This is what is called “local control”.

6.  Misconception:  Current town ordinances will need to be replaced or adopted another time if a charter is ultimately adopted.

   Fact:  All existing town ordinances will remain in effect if a town charter is adopted.  Changes to those ordinances will depend on whether the town meeting or the board of selectmen is delegated the legislative function of amending town ordinances.

7.  Misconception:  Voters in municipalities, like New Gloucester voters, find it easy to access state general statutes under which towns operate.

     Fact:  Even those who are familiar with MRSA Title 30 find it is not easy to locate the specific subject they are trying to understand in the statutes pertaining to municipalities.  For municipalities with charters, the structure and basic operating procedures are easy for citizens to reference all in one document.

For those who are “constitutionalist’s” it should be pointed out that Maine’s constitutional “Home Rule” amendment required the vote of two-thirds of the State Legislature and a majority of the voters in the state to become effective.  Its purpose was to afford every municipality the opportunity to have “local control” to determine their own form of government and to get the state legislature out of the business of legislating municipal organizational structures and procedures.  The home rule constitutional amendment was in part an opportunity for the state legislature to focus more on statewide issues than municipal matters.

British philosopher Alexander Pope said, “For forms of government let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best”.  The voters of New Gloucester have the opportunity to determine what is best for them through creating a Charter Commission when they vote on Tuesday, June 11th.

About the author:  John Salisbury is a New Gloucester resident and former executive director of the Maine Municipal Association.  In 1969, MMA under his leadership was successful in getting the Legislature and the voters in Maine to pass the constitutional home rule amendment.