A New Issue for New Gloucester – A Town Charter

An Occasional Column About New Gloucester Governance
By Penny Hilton
August 26, 2018

There are around 70 towns and cities in Maine governed by town charters, according to John Salisbury of the Sabbathday Lake area of New Gloucester. New Gloucester to date is not one of them, but maybe it should be – so let’s ask the voters.

That was the thrust of Salisbury’s comments at the microphone during the Audience Participation segment of the August 20 New Gloucester Selectmens’ Meeting.

But First, an old issue – Who really did what?
Actually, it wasn’t quite that simple.

The charter topic was first introduced at the meeting as an addition to the agenda by Selectman Joe Davis, one of the three Selectmen present. Davis was a little unclear as to whether he meant it as an action item, or just for discussion. He did note that the item had been added to the agenda earlier by town manager Carrie Castonquay, but then removed. When Castonquay was asked why it was removed, Selectwoman Linda Chase interrupted her as she started to reply and told the meeting it was because the town manager had not been able to complete research into the matter. Chase and Karen Gilles, the other two selectpeople present, argued that they did not have enough information on the matter at this point, and in the end, Davis joined them in an unanimous vote not to add it as an agenda item.

Peter Bragdon, as one of the public who had requested several days before the meeting that Castonguay add the item to the agenda, said the town manager had initially agreed, but later said that BOS (Board of Selectmen) Chair Steve Libby (along with Lynn Conger, absent at this Aug. 20th meeting) had decided the Aug. 20 agenda was too full, and directed the charter question be delayed until the September 17 meeting. There was no mention, Bragdon said, of incomplete research.

Back to the charter idea…
John Salisbury said he was speaking at the request of a group of citizens interested in pursuing a town charter because of his experience as a town manager, former executive director of the Maine Municipal Association, and the person who in 1987 drafted the Maine Home Rule statutes that cover town charters. He explained that without a charter, towns are quided only by relevant Maine laws that are often difficult to identify and do not clearly or completely deal with all the workings of municipal government. The result, he said, was that how a town worked remained unclear and confusing to the public. A charter would be able to spell out in one place all the rules and protocols for town governance, as agreed to by the voters.

He explained that the process begins with a town-wide vote on the question “Shall the Town of New Gloucester establish a Charter Commission for the purpose of creating a town charter?” If townspeople approve, then a Commission combining elected and appointed members is appointed. Their work would take place in public, over a period of a year or more, with periodic reports to the town, and end in a town vote to approve or disapprove the Charter.

Back to who did what…
After Salisbury, Bragdon returned to the podium to ask if the plaque dedicating the Fairgrounds pavilion to Harvey Price was already installed, and if so, might it be changed. He said the decision as to whom to dedicate the pavilion should have been made with public notice and a broader public nomination and selection process.

This issue became relevant later when former selectman Steve Hathorne addressed the Board.

Hathorne first asked several questions about how certain actions had come about, including: the selection of trees planted at the Fairgrounds; the addition of a second water spigot at the Fairgrounds, and how much the Water District is charging the town; how the extra expenditure of brush-hogging along Tobey Road was addressed; and how many installments on payments for the new Public Works Building will be paid before the project is even started. All these decisions, he suggested, were not made as openly as they should have been.

But the real issue, said Hathorne, was the way the selectmen handle additions to the agendas at meetings. “It’s been used basically for sleight of hand,” he said. He referred to the Board action earlier this year in which, with no public notice, right before elections, a majority of the BOS, including then-candidate Chase, voted to ignore/not enforce the Term Limits Ordinance established by public referendum vote the year before. While there are legal questions about the ordinance, the Selectmen are not the legal authority, and someone willing to spend the money could get this before the courts, he said. In the meantime, he said, “as far as I’m concerned, that term limit is still an ordinance in this town.”

All of these items, Hathorne concluded, including their action at this meeting not to add the Charter question to the agenda, demonstrated how the mechanism can be used inconsistently at the whim of the majority on the Board. As a matter of fact, he noted, at a recent meeting, Selectman Davis had proposed establishing a rule about such agenda adjustments made at a BOS meeting, either ending the practice or limiting its use to real emergencies. But a majority of the Board had refused to act, maintaining the unpredictable status quo.

Which led us back to the charter idea…
Finally, Hathorne came to the Charter issue. “I am for a charter,” he said. “I wasn’t, even two years ago… But I am not afraid of it anymore.”

Noting that a group of voters is already committed to getting the question to a vote, Hathorne said “We are putting you on notice. We want you to be with us every step of the way through this process.” He assured the board that, with them or without them, the question will be put to a town vote. Without the Board taking that first step, he said, “the only thing that’s difficult is we will have to run a petition.”

Notes (by the author)
on the Charter Process as Prescribed in State Law

  • The initial question of whether or not to establish a Charter Commission can come before the voters in either of two ways: the Selectmen can choose to put the question to town vote, or a committee of townspeople can gather sufficient signatures to have it put out as a referendum vote.
  • There are specific stipulations about time intervals, between signature gathering and a vote, between a vote and election of Commission members, and between the onset of the Commissions work and it’s final vote by the town. In all, it is a process of one to two years.
  • There are stipulations as to how the Commission is to be formed. Only one member may be a municipal/town office holder. The governing board of the town (BOS) may appoint three members to the commission. The voters then elect six additional at-large members.
  • The issues that can be covered in a Charter range from the four options for type of town government, which includes versions with and without a town meeting; and then everything from the rules governing the Board of Selectmen, to committees, to handling of finances, protocols and processes for hiring and removal of town managers, and more.