BAR HARBOR — With voters set to decide on Nov. 6 whether to establish a commission to review the town charter, opinions were divided at a public hearing last week. Opponents worry about cost and time spent on the process, and consolidating more power in the hands of the town council. Proponents say changes could save the town money and staff time.
The proposed charter commission, if approved, will review the 25-page town charter, Bar Harbor’s governing document, and propose revisions as they see fit. Any revisions proposed by the charter commission must then be approved by voters.
Residents who spoke at the public hearing had varying points of view. Anne Marie Quin, a member of the warrant committee, said she didn’t believe the time was right to establish a charter commission.
“First of all, it will cost money,” Quin said. “Secondly, I think there’s little interest in it, as illustrated by the very few people who signed up to be on it.
“Another reason is the upheaval our community has been in because of some of the issues that have come up recently,” Quin concluded, saying that the Maine Municipal Association recommends not having a charter commission during a time of upheaval.
“No one’s talking about wanting to do a charter commission,” said warrant committee member Donna Karlson. “We just had one ten short years ago.” She cautioned against rewriting the entire charter because “it’s a foundational document like the constitution.”
Former town councilor Peter St. Germain spoke in favor of a charter commission. “I think that a review of the charter is necessary,” he said. “Is there a cost to having a charter commission? Yes there is. Potentially can it save a lot of money for the town staff, and a lot of micromanaging of budgetary concerns …?”
“I think that it would be high time to take a look at the way the government functions. I think it’s a great form of government … but there are some refinements [to be made].”
Mike Gurtler, a former member of the warrant committee and one of the seven candidates running to serve on the proposed charter commission, spoke to concerns of a lack of interest. “Everyone running had to get a number of signatures to get on the ballot,” he said. “So I think you can extrapolate if there are seven people on the ballot, then that should represent hundreds of people that supported their thought in that.”
Gurtler also served on the charter commission in 2008, and spoke about that experience.
“There might be a perception that the charter commission is there to completely change or move things around or rewrite,” he said. “My experience from the last time is that it was an opportunity for a group of people that were passionate about our government and willing to serve, and we had thoughtful, respectful, and nonpartisan discussions.”
After reviewing the charter, Gurtler said, the commission “concluded that there were a few tweaks needed to be made, but pretty much kept the charter the way it was.”
The “tweaks” the charter commission recommended included requiring one year as a registered voter before running for town council or school committee, and eliminating the position of secretary on the town council and school committee. These recommendations were brought before voters at a 2010 town meeting, where they passed by a 1,069 to 202 vote.