BAR HARBOR — As debates about parking, cruise ships and other issues intensify leading up to town meeting in June, several dozen residents attended a “civility workshop” March 2 led by Ron Beard and Nina St. Germain.
Last month, councilors approved a proposal by Beard and St. Germain to host this workshop, draft a “civility code” to guide meetings of town boards and committees and host informational workshops about top issues before the June 2 town meeting.
St. Germain used to be very involved with the town, but having young children cut back her involvement due to demands on her time. More recently, watching Town Council and Planning Board meetings from home, she said “didn’t feel so great.”
It seemed like the meetings were more contentious than necessary.
Concerns about the tone of public debate also came up last fall when then-Planning Board Chair Ivan Rasmussen announced his resignation.
In his email to the Town Council announcing his departure, Rasmussen cited “people … making misleading public statements, sending out erroneous mailings and threatening lawsuits in this small town where people should be working towards compromise and consensus on important issues” as a factor in his decision.
Beard told a story about two children fighting over an orange. He said it shows the importance of sorting out the interest – the ‘why’ – behind the positions people take on public issues.
“They can both say, ‘It’s my orange and not yours,’ but if you ask them why they want it, you might get more information that may solve some problems. What if one kid wants orange zest for making cupcakes and the other wants to squeeze the orange for juice?”
St. Germain said that town officials and meeting participants could work to help people know what to expect and feel comfortable, like a host at a party might.
“Maybe this is like a customer service thing,” she said, “to help people that are uncomfortable.” It would help, she said, “if we explain a little bit more about the process and open ourselves up so we’re not just thinking about our one issue.”
Participants at the workshop formed small groups to discuss “what works well” in public meetings and “what gets in the way” of productive, satisfying conversations. They reported back at the end of the workshop.
“It’s important to remember that alliances between community members fluctuate and change over time,” resident Heather Kelly said. “So you’ve just got to put your armor on, remember that it’s not about you and stay focused on the issue.”
The next workshop, set for March 30, will focus on the ferry terminal and cruise ship questions. A workshop on the town budget, including an explanation of how the budget process works, will be April 20. A workshop on issues related to parking is set for May 23.
Locations and times are yet to be determined, Beard and St. Germain said.