BAR HARBOR — The nominating process for the town’s 22-member Warrant Committee has been the focus of debate this week, since an unusually large group of residents have expressed interest in joining the committee to serve next year.
The Warrant Committee is charged with reviewing and making recommendations on the town budget and other warrant articles that come before voters in regular or special town meetings. The committee has recently taken a more active role than in the past. This year, they discussed and voted on adding budget and policy changes not even on the warrant, such as in increase in fees and inspections for vacation rentals.
The Town Council discussed the nominating process Tuesday at the request of Councilor Matt Hochman, who attended meetings of the nominating committee last week and said he was concerned about the discussion there.
“I was uncomfortable with the way the process worked,” he said. “There were 14 new applications, but the committee decided to nominate all 20 returning members.” That left only three seats for new members, he said, even though members technically serve one-year terms.
According to the town charter, the nominating committee is chaired by the moderator from the previous year’s town meeting (Ron Beard), and includes the Warrant Committee chair and secretary (John Dargis and Seth Libby, respectively). Two other residents are appointed by the nominating committee chair. This year, Beard appointed Nina St. Germain and Martha Searchfield. The committee is charged with presenting a slate of 22 candidates at town meeting.
In 2015, three Warrant Committee nominees were added from the floor of town meeting, requiring a written ballot at the meeting to choose 22 of the 25 candidates presented.
There was an error in counting those ballots, and results were corrected in a recount the next day. Former town meeting moderator Jill Goldthwait said this week that if a written ballot is required in the future for Warrant Committee, results shouldn’t be expected immediately.
“We found out that it was too stressful, and a mistake was made,” she said. “Lock them in the box in the basement and count them the next day.”
Hochman said applicants’ age, gender and marital status were discussed at the nominating committee meeting, which he said might violate the town’s ethics ordinance.
Dargis, who is in his fourth year as chair of the Warrant Committee, defended the precedent of nominating all current committee members interested in continuing to serve. He did not intend to discriminate.
“There was a lot of hand wringing on the [nominating] committee about how we’re supposed to decide,” Dargis told the council. “One of the goals is to have a broad representation of residents. If the whole committee was made up of retired men in their 60s, that would seem fishy. If I used language that people found inappropriate, I don’t see it that way.”
He said it’s unreasonable to expect the chair of a committee to “pick and choose” which current members should be nominated to continue. “I think it’s a flawed process,” he said.
Councilor Clark Stivers said when he first served on the Warrant Committee 13 years ago, “it was a different animal than it is now. The committee was not trying to make any kind of policy.” It was usually a challenge for the nominating committee to find enough people willing to serve, he said, perhaps “because the work was more mundane, more tedious.”
Council Chair Paul Paradis agreed. “If we’re going to turn the Warrant Committee into true policy setters, I think we need to look at a new form of government,” he said. Very few other municipalities in Maine have Warrant or “budget” committees with so many members, he said.
Paradis also said there have been allegations of conflicts of interest or bias in the Warrant Committee. In 2014, attorney Mary Costigan, representing the town, wrote a memo to then-Town Manager Dana Reed that committee members need not recuse themselves from votes in which they have personal or business interests or strong opinions.
“The Warrant Committee differs from a planning board or zoning board in that the committee members are not asked to objectively apply a set of standards … in a manner in which their own opinion … does not interfere,” Costigan wrote. “The task of the Warrant Committee members … inherently involves the expression of individual opinions on the various articles presented.”
Councilor Peter St. Germain said recommendations for an amendment to the town charter changing the process should come from the currently seated Warrant Committee itself.
The Warrant Committee is set to meet Monday, April 10, at 7 p.m.