Government Spotlight

Town charters and governance: New Gloucester and beyond

| Joanne Cole |

The Charter Commission will hold a public meeting on Wednesday July 21 at 7 pm at the Meetinghouse.  It’s an open-ended session to take input from the community about what residents would like to see in a draft charter, questions they’d like the commission to address, suggestions or comments about the process, or anything else on residents’ minds as the commission’s work begins in earnest.             

In order to join in or just follow along, it may be helpful to have some background about what a charter is and can do, and a sense of New Gloucester’s current governance.

What a charter is and does.  A municipal charter is a blueprint for town government, in effect, its constitution and rules.  Towns and cities choose to adopt a charter; it’s not required.  But a charter does offer towns broad authority to decide for themselves on the form, structures, and administration of their government, instead of being limited by rules and procedures set by the Legislature.  It’s an expression of “home rule”: local control, with local matters decided by and in the town, starting with the drafting and adoption of the charter itself.    

The New Gloucester charter commission has described charters this way: “A charter is the equivalent of a constitution for the town.  The charter defines the governance structure of the town, distribution of powers, budget process, public access, and other government functions.”

Those broad terms—”distribution of powers,” “public access,” “other government functions”—each encompass a host of more-specific topics.  The frameworks of the charters of nearby towns—Poland, Mechanic Falls, Freeport, Gray, and North Yarmouth—suggest their scope.  Main topics include Town Meeting; Select Board or Town Council; Town Manager; Elections; Taxes and Budgets; Elected and Appointed Boards, Commissions, and Committees; Citizens’ Initiatives, Referenda, Recall; Schools. 

Detailed provisions then follow within each section.  For example, the “Board of Selectpersons” section of Poland’s charter has 11 subsections, including “composition, eligibility, election, and terms; general powers and duties; compensation; chair; proceedings of the board of selectmen; investigations and subpoena power; emergency ordinances; prohibitions; vacancies, forfeiture of office, filling of vacancies;” and more.            

Predictably, towns’ charters differ markedly as to these specifics but also in the fundamental governing structure the towns have chosen.  And that’s a topline of municipal charters: the form or structure of town governance: who, exactly, does what.  So that’s a sensible place to start.

Forms or structures of governance.  The default town governance structure in Maine, dating from colonial times, has had town meeting at the top.  For many of us, town meeting sounds like an event on a calendar, a gathering in May, but it’s actually better understood as the anchor of New Gloucester’s governance.  Town meeting is the body that passes the town’s laws (“ordinances”), levies taxes and approves budget expenditures, and delegates certain acts and authority to the select board or the town officers.  In the past, select board members would also have been elected at and by the town meeting. (Learn more about town meeting)   

In the oldest of olden days in New England, town governance was a bit like Henry Ford’s quip that you could have any color Model T you wanted as long as it was black: a community in Maine could have any form of governance it wanted as long as it was town meeting.  Over time, boards of selectmen (and they were men) were established to carry out the decisions of the town meeting.  Town managers followed, in the early 20th century, to administer the policies of the select board and manage the day-to-day running of the town.   

Finally, with passage of Maine’s Home Rule law, through an amendment to the Maine Constitution in 1969, municipalities were given greater scope for self-determination, including to adopt mix-and-match governance elements if they chose, through a charter.

Like other Maine towns, New Gloucester currently has a town meeting—select board—town manager form of government.  Town meeting is the legislative body, the select board is the executive body carrying out the will of town meeting, and the town manager oversees day-to-day administration.  But the charter commission could propose a different structure. 

Governance options in Maine include these:

  • Town Meeting–Selectmen
  • Town Meeting–Selectmen–Manager (current in NG)
  • Council–Town Meeting–Manager
  • Council–Manager
  • Council–Mayor–Administrator

A hybrid structure, where there’s a town council, town meeting, and town manager, is what Gray opted for in its charter.  In that model, legislative authority is shared by town meeting and the council.  Town meeting retains budget authority and the council enacts ordinances after notice and hearings. 

It’s worth mentioning here that, although a “town council” sounds like a dramatic departure, it really amounts to a select board by another name and with greater flexibility.  (It needs the different name to distinguish it from state laws governing select boards.).  Gray’s five-member council looks and acts a whole lot like the New Gloucester select board at meetings.  The main difference is the extent of their authority, tailored in Gray by their charter but largely set by state statute in New Gloucester.    

Mechanic Falls, with about half the population of New Gloucester, adopted the town council-manager form of government in its charter.  Citizens are represented by five elected councilors, and McFalls residents still control the municipal budget, just not via town meeting.  Instead, they do their budget by written ballot referendum, as New Gloucester has done for two years now, due to Covid restrictions on public gatherings.    

Why consider alternative governance structures?  If town meeting has long been the foundation of governance in New Gloucester, why might the commission consider moving away from town meeting as the exclusive legislative body?  Participation and speed might be two reasons. 

Town meeting reflects cherished principles of direct democracy and calls up images of a Norman Rockwell painting, but if few residents participate, it’s hard to consider it truly representative. 

As part of their fact-finding, the commission will almost certainly try to get solid numbers for recent New Gloucester town meetings. Definitive numbers are hard to come by, but informal estimates suggest that between 100 and 150 citizens were turning up for town meeting in recent, pre-Covid years.  Those voters decided literally millions of dollars in taxation and expenditures and approved far-reaching ordinances on land use and more. 

By contrast, this June’s town-meeting-by-referendum ballot saw more than 1000 residents vote.  (Our total population is about 6000 souls.)  Those 1000 June voters, in turn, pale in comparison with the turnout for the fall 2020 election (Trump-Biden, Collins-Gideon, races for Maine legislature), when more than 3500 NG residents voted.  Against this context, a 100-person town meeting seems… limited.        

Another key governance consideration might be speed or efficiency.  By definition, the annual town meeting comes once a year, potentially a long time to wait if an ordinance or other action is urgently needed.  The alternative, calling a special town meeting, takes lead time, staff, considerable coordination, and some expense.  Even fewer citizens typically attend special town meetings.  At one special town meeting, in June 2019, fewer than 50 voters decided the fate of a proposed new fire rescue ordinance, nixed a property tax relief measure for seniors, and imposed a six-month moratorium on large solar arrays. 

Ultimately, the charter commission could propose enshrining the structure we have now, it could move away from our town meeting-select board-manager model, or it could keep existing structures but alter them.  For example, keep town meeting as the legislative body at the top but require a specific quorum, as Poland has done in its charter.  Or keep a select board but give it power to enact emergency ordinances and specify the circumstances, as other communities’ charters do.   

Whatever the commission ultimately decides to propose should, at a minimum, aim for effective governance, balancing participation, representation, and efficiency.   

Governance and administration without a charter.  Along with the town’s fundamental governance structure, there are myriad other governmental and administrative matters that charters can and do address, and which the commission may consider.  These can be anything from details of where and how election notices are posted, to whether certain committees are elected directly or appointed, what information capital budget requests must contain, or the grounds for removing a town manager or town officer.  It may be helpful to consider first how these matters work without a charter.

In general, if a town doesn’t have a charter, it is bound by what state statutes declare on a given topic.  For many issues–-although not all–-the town can enact a law (an ordinance) to address the matter, if it chooses. 

And that’s how New Gloucester has operated so far.  Details and procedures are a bit of a patchwork: some matters are controlled by statutes from Augusta by default; for others an ordinance might have been passed at a town meeting.  Many more are handled by the select board, sometimes through written policies but often just through traditional practice. 

To illustrate this ‘patchwork’ idea, consider the town manager and budgeting.  Maine law has some skeletal provisions about a town manager’s powers and duties – that’s what you get by default, automatically, if you don’t have a charter with custom-tailored manager terms.  That general law says the manager must inform everybody about “the town’s financial condition” and must “collect data necessary for the preparation of the budget.” 

So far, so good: it’s clear that the town manager prepares a data-based budget.  But does that include capital budgets—your next fire truck, your new town building—or just the town’s annual operating budget?  The general law is silent on that point.  Does the manager’s budget go to the citizen budget committee, or just to the select board?  Again silent.  When must any of this happen?  The state law is silent on that, too.  Neighboring towns’ charters answer these specific questions—who does what, when—so that budget processes and responsibilities are transparent and clear, with accountability.

In New Gloucester, by contrast, the town manager’s role in budgeting, even the larger budget process itself, appears to be a largely a matter of informal traditional practice, not ordinance or written policy.  That degree of flexibility may suit residents fine, but it also means that budget practices not particularly accessible, and they can change when the town manager or select board changes.  Last year, for example, town manager Brenda Fox-Howard brought department heads to the select board and to the citizen budget committee for direct Q&A about their operating budgets, a change the board and budget committee appeared to welcome.  This year, town manager Christine Landes or the new select board may feel differently. 

And so it can go, with any number of informal governance and administrative policies and practices all potentially subject to change.  By contrast, a charter can make explicit and predictable the essentials of how governance will be structured and town business conducted.  It can define specific lines of authority and oversight, set eligibility criteria for elected and appointed officials, determine protocols for boards and committees and mechanisms for public input – whatever the commission and community consider important enough to include in a foundational document.

Because a charter is created from the ground up, through a process that requires the town to consider what is fundamental, its structures and key expectations are determined with intention and through deliberation – no patchwork.  Once adopted, it becomes a living document, as Maine’s charter law anticipates subsequent revisions, modifications, amendments, as needed and approved by the community; it’s not set in stone. 

Finally, public input is not only legally required in the charter development process; it is essential.  An important first opportunity is the open public meeting taking place on Wednesday July 21 at 7 pm at the Meetinghouse.  Consider adding your voice to the emerging conversation, at the public meeting, via email to ngchartercommission@gmail.com, and during public comment at ongoing commission meetings.

To learn more about charters, the charter commission and its work, agendas, and minutes, click here.

Author’s note: an earlier version of this piece, written in collaboration with Terry DeWan, was delivered by Terry as moderator of the charter commission candidate forum in May. Thanks to Terry for his participation and contributions.