Government Spotlight

Who should decide? Charter commission digs into discussion of legislative authority

|Debra Smith|

At its fifth regular meeting on September 13th, the New Gloucester Charter Commission addressed a number of business items including a very ambitious timeline for drafting the charter, then continued their discussion of where legislative authority should be vested: in the elected select board/ council, or in town meeting, or some combination? This is the central question the commission has been exploring, in regard to governance structure. They also reviewed and discussed a straw poll survey of commission members, and made plans for beginning to draft sections of the charter document for feedback. Steve Libby and Don Libby were absent.

Chair Ben Tettlebaum provided a recap of the discussion about legislative authority begun at their last meeting, focusing on town meeting. Keeping town meeting would help the charter pass, but there is now and might be less direct participation. Town meeting gives people the opportunity to speak and vote in an interactive environment. It is a slow process, however, both a pro and a con, but there could be a provision for emergency ordinances to be decided by the select board/ town council with a town-wide vote within 60 days.

Is town meeting truly democratic? The pros and cons of direct versus representative forms of democracy were woven throughout the discussion. Mike Arata said that he respects the tradition of town meeting, but it can be difficult for people to participate. John Salisbury noted that younger people are busy and don’t participate, so the town meeting vote may not reflect the majority’s views. Having a quorum for town meeting would help.

Ben Tettlebaum had looked at historical data and over the past 15-20 years, an average of 1% to under 2% of voters have attended town meeting. With direct democracy, every individual has sovereignty. The fewer people who participate, the more power each vote has. “The concern I have is that the number who show up historically is counter-majoritarian. The 1-2% who vote are unelected representatives making decisions. In that sense, legal authority vested in elected representatives is more democratic.“

Where does accountability lie with town meeting? “We often talk about it, but the system isn’t built for it,” said Salisbury. Elected representatives are accountable to the voters.

Is it possible to elect people for town meeting? Penny Hilton wondered. Salisbury said the town of Sanford does that, but most towns with the population of New Gloucester don’t have town meetings. Peter Bradgon said he’s “not so hung up on the number of people. If it’s a hot topic, people come out… I think the majority of people who want to be there are there.” Linda Chase concurred. “I often hear from people before town meeting that they’re happy with the budget and other items, they just don’t want to sit there.”

In a referendum, noted Bradgon, people aren’t generally as educated about the issues when they vote. Perhaps we need a two-part system, suggested Steve Hathorne, like the school district that has a validation meeting about the budget, then the final numbers go to a referendum vote. Communication and means of educating people about the articles needs attention. Hathorne mentioned North Yarmouth’s posted information around town. Tettlebaum suggested that a participatory education process is needed.  

Mike Arata suggested changing what we include in town meeting, with time to discuss and amend warrant articles.  Others suggested variations in what might be included, such as leaving the technical stuff to the select board (like those last 12 articles that have to do with things like being able to accept grants).  

Nothing was decided, but a review of the draft survey that commission members responded to prior to this meeting showed unanimous support for town meeting in some form, for select board members to be elected to three-year terms, and to continue to have a town manager (vs. a mayor or administrator). See the results here.

The commission members working in small teams will start drafting some sections of the charter to bring back to the whole group for feedback and revision. This will be an iterative process, with public feedback invited all along the way. The goal is to have a first draft by early February, and a final draft to go to the select board in June. Public comment can be submitted via email or presented in person at any meeting.

You can watch the video of this meeting here.

The Charter Commission’s information page on town website includes lots of background information about charters and details about the Commission’s work.

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