Government Spotlight

What should a charter address? Commission hears from citizens at first hearing

|Debra Smith|

The recently-launched New Gloucester Charter Commission held its first public hearing on July 21 to receive input from citizens. Held live in the meetinghouse, there were about 15 in-person attendees, several of whom spoke. There were also a number of emailed comments read into the record.

GOVERNMENTAL STRUCTURE
“If you want voters to approve your charter,” Cindy Brakey suggested, “I urge you not to change our town government structure.” There was strong support expressed for keeping the basic structure we have now, with a select board, town manager and town meeting. In Tom Jordan’s view, the governmental structure we have is effective, but needs “to be fine-tuned.” Scott Morelli, a resident who is South Portland’s city manager, suggested switching to a town council-town manager form of government, as a more efficient structure than a select board.  

No one suggested getting rid of, or changing, the role of the town manager. There is broad support for town meeting, with improvements to ensure democratic participation (see processes below).

The name of the select board is a concern for some. Nick Planson suggested updating the language, saying that calling them “Board of Selectmen and Overseers of the Poor,” is “antiquated and discriminatory.” George Colby, on the other hand, opposes “gender-neutral language” and “socially PC terms.”

PROCESSES
With a majority in favor of keeping the select board- town manager- town meeting structure, there were many suggestions for improving processes.

Voting
While most are in favor preserving town meeting, some are concerned about important decisions being made by a very small group of voters. “A budget vote at town meeting is inadequate for the current times….It’s disheartening to see 100 people deciding on a budget for 6,000 people,” commented Mark Bowie. Some suggested that holding a town meeting vote should require a quorum, as in some communities (say 10% of registered voters). A town meeting could be combined with a referendum vote, noted Laura Fralich and Adam Gilman. Carl Wilcox explained that the school district uses this approach, which allows discussion of the proposed articles and makes revisions possible by the board based on public input, before a referendum vote.  

Board members could be elected by district, at large or a combination, suggested Scott Morelli.  

The timing of elections was also mentioned, with the possibility of moving municipal elections from June to November when considerably more voters show up at the polls.

Recall elections
Several commenters spoke in support of recall provisions, even former board member Colby who said the process should be simple, clear and limited (in scope). “A recall provision is needed, for obvious reasons,” said Laura Sturgis. Also, making sure that there is a clear job description and ethical standards for board members will help to ensure accountability.

Term limits
Most favored term limits. “I don’t think being elected to the Board of Selectmen should be a lifetime appointment,” Laura Sturgis stated. Ellie Espling, a former state representative who was term-limited out of her seat, is opposed because in her view, you lose a lot of expertise.

(Note: a term limit ordinance was voted in by town meeting a few years ago, but never enacted by the board. The then-chair explained that without a charter, it isn’t allowed by state statute.)

Committees
There were a number of suggestions about committee appointments. Related to the timing of board elections, some wonder if the timing of committee appointments should be delayed until after the board’s first meeting to give them time to get their feet under them. Another element is the process for making appointments. First, several mentioned the need for clear criteria for selection, and a thorough review of applicants, including interviews. Terry Dewan called the recent appointment of planning board members, which took place at the new board’s first meeting, “a missed opportunity.” In George Colby’s view, the only criteria for serving on a committee should be age (at least 18) and town residence.

Some commented in favor of limiting the number of family members serving on the same committee, and limiting the number of committees an individual can serve on, to ensure broader participation. “There should be no more than on family member on a committee,” said former select board member Joe Davis. In her written comments, Ellie Espling opposed limits on the number of family members who can serve on a committee.

Budget process
Patti Mikkelson commented that people are dissatisfied with the budget process. Nick Planson would like to see an annual and a 3-5 year capital budget. Scott Morelli mentioned the inefficient, bureaucratic nature of the process that has been used, with both the board and the budget committee developing and then negotiating a budget. “Any town manager worth their salt can develop a budget,” said Morelli.

Already mentioned above, were concerns about a tiny number of voters deciding on the budget at town meeting, and suggestions for making the process more democratically representative.

Transparency, access to information and participation
Caleb Dunn spoke about the importance of the public being informed and involved. Many spoke to the need for ensuring that community members have access to information, and processes for participation. Lauren Jordan and others emphasized the importance of community members being able to participate in meetings remotely, and to have easy access to information on the town web site and through other means. From encouraging people to join committees, to ensuring two-way communication and being able to comment on agenda items when they are being discussed, were among the many suggestions made.

Linking the charter and comprehensive plan
In her written comments, Julie Fralich urged the commission to consider the charter as it relates to the comprehensive plan. “The ability of the people in town to come together, to govern in a productive and respectful manner and to work collaboratively to achieve the visions in the Comp Plan will be in part dependent on the sound scaffolding represented by a new town Charter.  As we have seen in the past, some issues come before the town and require rather immediate and timely attention – like the moratorium on solar panels; the proposed tax reduction for older adults, marijuana policies. These really require the town to be able to pivot and develop ordinances in a timely manner. Thus, I would suggest that the Commission keep the vision of the Comprehensive Plan in mind as you begin your deliberations.”

SUMMING UP
There is a lot of common ground for the commission to build on, and some complex challenges to grapple with. The commission has formed a public engagement committee that includes Penny Hilton, John Salisbury and Ben Tettlebaum. They invite community members to join them.

The commission also invites comments ongoing. You can send them your thoughts via email at ngchartercommission@gmail.com

To watch the entire July 21st hearing, see  https://newgloucester.viebit.com/player.php?hash=VAE9YFRpRxDr

NGX has added a “charter” tab on the web site (under government) and will report on the commission’s meetings throughout the process.