BAR HARBOR — The town’s Warrant Committee decided last month that committee members who also were involved in a citizen initiative petition may vote on whether to recommend adoption of that initiative question to voters at town meeting in June.
The petition proposal, Article 13, would limit the length of cruise ships tying up to a pier and the daily number of passengers allowed by proposing amendments to the town’s land use ordinance (LUO).
According to the town charter, the group of residents who collect signatures for a citizen petition form a petitioners’ committee. Their names appear on the affidavit filed with the town clerk saying they will be responsible for circulating the petition.
Warrant Committee members Jonathan Eno and Robert Chaplin also were members of that petitioners’ committee for Article 13, according to the affidavit. Another Warrant Committee member, Donna Karlson, has said in meetings this spring that she helped the committee review the text of the proposed amendment though she was not a circulator.
The 22-member Warrant Committee meets to consider every item on the warrant for voters in June and November local elections except candidates for elected office. They divide the work into subcommittees to research and make recommendations to the full Warrant Committee.
Eno and Karlson are two of the five members of the General Government subcommittee, which voted to recommend passage of Article 13.
Town Manager Cornell Knight said he attended part of the March 21 General Government subcommittee meeting where the petition amendment was on the agenda but left before it was over to attend a Town Council meeting that night.
“I asked him whether he had, at the subcommittee, discussed his role and whether there was a conflict,” Knight said this week.
“The issue that is raised is that I, as a member of the subcommittee, was also a passer of the citizen initiative to put this warrant on the ballot,” Eno told the Warrant Committee when it reached the citizen petition amendment on the agenda on March 27. “I admit that I was there, I did do it, and quite frankly I didn’t even think that that was an issue. But I lay it before the committee as a whole here to decide if that was a conflict or not.”
The committee voted unanimously that Eno did not have a conflict, with Eno abstaining from the vote.
Seth Libby, who also is a General Government subcommittee member, noted that the subcommittee recommended approval of Article 13 by a wide enough margin that, even if Eno had been recused from the subcommittee vote, it would not have changed the outcome.
Knight said he did not approach Chaplin to discuss the issue with him. He said he assumed that if the committee voted on a conflict of interest for Eno, their decision would hold for Chaplin as well. “If they had found a conflict, then I’d say that probably would have come up. But if you don’t find that there’s a conflict, then I don’t know as you need to” vote twice, he said.
Committee member John Kelly compared the question to a debate about Warrant Committee bias several years ago. In 2013, an attorney representing a resident who had requested a zoning change in Town Hill said Kelly and Jake Jagel should have recused themselves from the Warrant Committee vote on the change because they owned property in the area and had opposed the change in public hearings. An attorney representing the town said those bias allegations were without merit and Kelly and Jagel had acted within their rights.
“We are elected officials. And we have opinions,” Kelly said. “And we can go out and protest and be vocal and do all of these things – just like every elected official does. We can put our opinions out there, and we can argue those points publicly, and that is not a conflict of interest.”
Knight said he thought the 2013 situation was different from the question of involvement in a citizen initiative.
“[Kelly] talks about everybody being able to have their opinion, but it’s different to have your opinion and then to actively pursue getting signatures to change the policy. That seems different to me, but the Warrant Committee thought otherwise, so that’s it.”