Charter proposal debated

BAR HARBOR — The Charter Commission presented its draft report for proposed changes to the town charter, and held a public hearing on Monday.

More than 60 people attended, offering the Charter Commission plenty to consider as they meet to prepare their final report to Town Council in December. Following more public hearings, proposed changes are set to go to voters at the June 2020 town meeting.

Most of the comments at Monday’s meeting focused on two controversial proposed changes: allowing the Town Council to enact Land Use Ordinance (LUO) changes with a supermajority vote, and decreasing the size and the scope of the Warrant Committee.

Currently all LUO changes go to a town vote, either at an annual Town Meeting in June or a special town election in November. Proposed changes to the charter would allow Town Council to enact LUO changes with a supermajority vote (five of seven members must approve), and only if recommended by a supermajority vote by the Planning Board.

“Voting really empowers people,” said Julie Berberian, a Charter Commission member who was one of two members to vote against that proposed change. “Public hearings are great … but it doesn’t replace voting. That’s where residents get to legislate for themselves. If I vote and it doesn’t go my way, I don’t feel bad because that’s how the town wanted it to go.”

Resident Ellen Grover added, “To expect nine people to come together and speak for us as a town is really not the way to go. Streamline as you wish, [but] democracy is messy.”

“Why is the response to all of this to take away my voice?” asked resident Val Peacock. “All that we should be looking at are ways to reduce barriers to participation. I really think it’s important for all of us to have our say.”

Reading a statement from Planning Director Michele Gagnon, Assistant Planner Steve Fuller expressed support for proposed changes. “The process to amend the land use ordinance in Bar Harbor is something of an obstacle course.”

Approving the proposed changes, according to Gagnon, would “result in an ordinance that is more responsive to the needs of the community.”

Proposed changes to the Warrant Committee involve decreasing the size from 22 to 15 members, and no longer having it review the school budget.

The rationale for the latter change, Charter Commission Chair Michael Gurtler explained, is that the school budget is reviewed by the School Board and Town Council in open meetings.

Resident Michael Good, who serves on the education subcommittee of the Warrant Committee, argued that the Warrant Committee is “another set of eyes. I think that’s an important part of the process. Again, you’re removing public involvement.”

Former Warrant Committee Jake Jagel said four of the committee’s current 22 members serve on the education subcommittee. If their task were eliminated, he asked, shouldn’t that mean reducing the size of the full committee by four members rather than seven?

Reducing the membership by four “comes out 18 rather than 15, by my math,” he said. “And it’s my math, not the new math,” he said, drawing some chuckles.

Charter Commission member Jill Goldthwait explained one consideration for proposing the decrease in size: “It’s difficult to find people to serve.” The current budget review, she said, “is a process that takes a tremendous amount of staff time.”

Jagel noted, “The Warrant Committee consists of 22 of the people for whom I have grown a tremendous amount of respect.”

According to Gurtler, new advice from Town Attorney Ed Bearor indicates the possibility that proposed changes can be voted on individually.

“We’re going to start talking about that,” Gurtler told the Islander in an interview. “I suspect that we want to be able to break [proposed changes] up. I suspect what we’ll end up doing is grouping them in like changes.”

Gurtler said of Monday’s meeting, “I was happy to see so many people engaged in the process. I was generally pleased by the way most people shared their thoughts and were engaged. There was a lot of good conversation and information.”

He said that when he served on the Charter Commission 10 years ago, “There was not as much citizen engagement in the process last time. We have people at every meeting this time. We did not have the amount of public hearings, or emails.”

Gurtler encourages the public to stay involved. “People who weren’t able to make the meeting can live stream it on the town website. People can continue to come to the meetings and send emails. Once the final report is complete, we will hold other informational meetings going forward.”

Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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