MOUNT DESERT — Eighty-eight registered voters signed in at the annual town meeting May 3, but that number dwindled to fewer than 60 with about 10 items still to be voted on including the Mount Desert Elementary School budget.
Those who remained included Select Board members and town department heads.
Moderator Bill Ferm hurried through the rest of the warrant articles and pleaded with the people still there not to leave because the town charter requires that at least 50 registered voters be present for any town meeting business to be conducted.
“I was dismayed at the small turnout; we barely squeaked out a quorum,” Select Board member Martha Dudman said at last week’s board meeting.
“There are plenty of people in town who could come to town meeting. But people have gotten out of the habit. They’re used to Zoom now, and it’s not the same. We want to have people right there talking over the issues. It’s important.
“We need to think about how we can rebuild and reenergize the town meeting.”
Dudman suggested moving town meeting from the elementary school gym to the Neighborhood House.
“It’s a warm, welcoming atmosphere; it’s a place that’s full of good memories for people,” she said. “You can fit 244 people in there, and it would be a miracle if we got that many.
“And the chairs there are a lot more comfortable than [the bleachers] at the school.”
Dudman recalled that prior to the COVID pandemic, people who came early to town meeting could have “a little supper” of soup or quiche or something like that.
“It brought people together and started things off on a good note,” she said. “I think we should put people in a good mood.
“We also used to have some of the kids from the elementary school or high school come and play music, and their parents would come to watch them. We also could. reach out to teachers and ask them to assign a report on town meeting to some of their students. That also would bring the parents along.”
And Dudman said members of the Select Board should encourage everyone they know to come to town meetings.
“This is our form of government, and if we don’t take care of it, it’s going to just wither and die,” she said.
Select Board member Geoff Wood said, “Although none of us wants to spend more hours than we need to debating, that’s how it works. Democracy is messy.”
A resident attending the Select Board meeting suggested that if there is a controversial issue to be voted on, it should be placed at the end of the town meeting warrant, not at the beginning.
“We’ve done that in the past to keep people there, and it worked,” Dudman said.
Mount Desert resident Tracey Aberman said, “I think there’s a little bit of apathy. When you talk to people about going to the town meeting, the say, ‘Everything is going to pass, so what does it matter? I don’t need to be there.’”
Town Clerk Claire Woolfolk said, “I think the apathy we’re seeing is part and parcel of the general apathy that we see across the board, whether it’s a local, state or federal election.
“I love the idea of getting the school students involved because it starts with them and their parents, making it a way of life and realizing that your vote actually does affect what goes on in your community, in your state, in your country.”