Town Government – Who Makes the Rules: Why You Might Consider a Town Charter

By Penny HiltonB

For towns without town charters, there are very few laws that address how town government shall run. These laws  are scattered throughout various Maine State Statutes, and difficult for the average person to find.  This means that whoever is in elected office in such a town is free to set – and change – rules and protocols.

A town charter is a legal document that sets, in one place, the rules and protocols for the town’s operation. These rules are established by the voters, and may only be changed by the voters. That means that the town operates by the same rules, no matter who is elected, and that voters can refer to these rules and hold elected officers accountable to them.

Charter Development is a Methodical Process.
The only body that can decide to create a town charter is the voting public. After that voter go-ahead, a charter is written by 9 people on a commission, (like a committee) 3 appointed by the Board of Selectmen (only one of the 3 may be an elected official), and 6 elected by the voters. The commissioners will choose whether to make decisions by majority rule, or by consensus. Either way, they must gather public opinion at the beginning of the process, conduct all their business in public, produce an interim report, have a public hearing before the vote, and finally,  submit the charter for approval of a majority vote by secret ballot at the polls. This process is intended and designed to be a true voice of the majority of the town. It is designed for commissioners who will approach their work with civility, good will, and a shared intention to serve the voters.

What Might a Town Charter Improve for New Gloucester?
What actually will be addressed will depend upon voter requests and the ideas of the elected commission members. The list below is an incomplete sample of possibilities, with no guarantee that any of these specific items will actually be addressed….. What are YOUR ideas?

Budget process – a clearer process?  a clearer format? written opinions from department heads, selectmen, and budget committee? voter line item veto? the ability to both lower and raise amounts at town meeting?

Town Meeting, Ballot Vote, or Both – There has been discussion for years about the merits of town meeting over a more accessible ballot vote. The Charter provides the opportunity to discuss this thoroughly and then choose one or the other or a compromise where a ballot vote is triggered if town meeting does not result in a certain percentage of the town voting

Ethical Standards – Currently ethical standards for the behavior of elected officials are only vaguely presented. A Charter could set rules regarding such issues as family members serving on the same Board or Committee, recusal of elected and appointed officials from discussing and voting on appointment of other family members, and recusal of elected and appointed officials from discussion and voting on issues in which they have personal and/or financial interests.

Standards of Notice – While state law covers issues of public notice with regard to certain issues, like town meeting warrants and elections and ordinances, there are other instances where notice would be the ethical and operational best practice, but are currently  left to official discretion. A recent example is the BOS attempt to disband a committee without informing the committee chair.  A charter might require that the committee chair of any committee under BOS discussion be invited to attend the meeting. In general, it might require that any ACTION be preceded by a clear ACTION ITEM posting on the agenda, with timely notice, so that the public will always be alerted to potential BOS actions.

Public Access to Materials Bearing on BOS Discussion – It used to be that anyone attending a BOS meeting would be given the same packet of materials as the Selectmen (excluding anything that came under the executive session or privilege protection) so that they could understand the issues the selectmen were addressing. Now the selectmen refer to pages and discuss issues and the voters have no opportunity to ask questions or follow along.

Public Record of Committee Work – At present, there is no public record of Committee meetings except those which are recorded by the Cable TV Committee. Public awareness and interest would be served by being able to follow along with the work of all committees through timely posting of minutes or summaries.

A Charter Commission is not an ADDITIONAL layer of government. The Commission works separately to set the rules for the permanent form of government, and disbands when it is done.

By Penny Hilton, Edited by NGX