BAR HARBOR — A project aimed at improving communication and trust between residents and town government got a green light from the Town Council Tuesday. The unanimous council vote authorized spending up to $5,000 from a contingency account for a pilot project to host community meetings, create branding-marketing materials and advertise on Facebook and elsewhere.
Councilors hope the project will increase involvement in public conversations. “People tell me they don’t like to say things because they feel overwhelmed by the vocal, angry side you sometimes see at these meetings,” Councilor Burt Barker said.
In past town election cycles, Councilor Gary Friedmann said, “a few people spread misinformation or really prejudiced views that don’t tell the whole story, and they carry the day.”
Residents Nina St. Germain and Ron Beard are set to host a public workshop about increasing civility and participation in town government and to develop a “Bar Harbor Civility Code” using suggestions from the workshop. The code would be a set of best practices intended to guide the conduct of town board, committee and task force meetings. St. Germain and Beard plan to volunteer for this project.
They also plan to organize three facilitated community meetings between March and May on three hot topics in town government: use of the former ferry terminal, the town budget and parking. A trained facilitator would be paid $150 per meeting.
“People have a lot of feelings about issues like parking meters or funding for the YMCA,” St. Germain said Tuesday. “It would be great if they could hash out some of those feelings in another forum before we get to town meeting. When people don’t know, they say no.”
The plan grew out of a proposal by St. Germain to councilors ahead of their October goal-setting workshop. They adopted a goal to “improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our town governance and encourage citizen involvement.”
St. Germain, working with the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce and the HUB of Bar Harbor, also conducted a survey of voters on Election Day in November to gauge public opinion on top issues facing the town. When they presented results in December, they said voters seemed to want more information on many of the issues.
Town officials also plan to begin posting more information to a town Facebook page, with commenting disabled. This and other new information channels should operate alongside existing sources, like the Mount Desert Islander and public access cable television, St. Germain said.
She and Beard are set to report back to the council in June on the pilot project. St. Germain said she hoped future steps could include a town newsletter and appointment of a town information official responsible for public relations.