BAR HARBOR — The newly formed charter commission held its first public hearing Monday evening. About a dozen people spoke, giving their thoughts on how the commission should proceed in reviewing the document that outlines town government.
Several residents spoke in favor of the warrant committee. This committee is comprised of 22 elected members who make recommendations on the town budget and all other articles that appear on the warrant to be voted on at town meeting.
Bar Harbor resident and warrant committee Chairman Seth Libby called the warrant committee “a sounding board” on issues that the voters ultimately decide on.
“The warrant committee’s position on any article is just a footnote” for issues on the ballot, he said. “Our 22 members are elected and take their duty very seriously. That should be heralded as a sign that our democracy is working.”
Warrant committee member Liz Case spoke about the committee as a valuable introduction to town government. “This is a changing of the guard,” she said. “I have gray hair… I have always felt [about] the warrant committee, that there is no better way to learn the process of going over the budget.”
John Dargis, former warrant committee member, said of the committee, “One of the greatest values is it opens up town government to a more diverse group of people in the town.” He continued that in reviewing articles, “The warrant committee has seen things that other committees in the town have not.”
Carroll Chapel continued this idea, speaking in support of the “checks and balances our warrant committee provides.” She said, “We need a place at the table for divergent points of view and our warrant committee provides that.”
Planning board Chairman Tom St. Germain asked the charter commission to re-examine the “warrant committee’s role, especially land use ordinances.”
Citing examples in which he has been “surprised at [the] warrant committee’s vocal disapproval” for decisions the planning board made according to the land use ordinance and state regulations, he concluded, “The bottom line is, I would urge you to consider whether the warrant committee should be reviewing the land use articles when historically they were a budget review committee. If they do, they should be required to read the land use ordinance and be familiar with it.”
Town Councilor Paul Paradis said he would like to see the budget process streamlined. “I feel our budget process is too cumbersome.” Noting that the budget process “takes up to six months” and many meetings, he said, “We’re one of two communities that does it this way. I feel it’s duplicative and adds an element of complexity that a town of 5,000 doesn’t need.”
Three of the four towns on Mount Desert Island have warrant committees.
When asked, Town Manager Cornell Knight said the budget process currently involves working with both town council and the warrant committee. “I’ll present budget to town council next week, have three meetings [with council], then go to warrant committee,” he explained. “I attended 14 meetings with warrant committee last year.”
Knight said that the last town he worked in had joint meetings of the warrant committee and selectmen.
Other people had general comments about town government and voting procedures. Lynn Williams suggested having town councilors elected by district, representing areas such as Town Hill, Salsbury Cove, and Hulls Cove. Donna Karlson suggested term limits on elected and appointed officials.
Burt Wartell urged the charter commission to “reject electronic voting machines,” saying they were easily tampered with. “If you do decide to go with them, please include in the charter that they be auditable,” he advised, providing a paper trail for voters and the town.
Some people spoke in favor of retaining Bar Harbor’s town meeting form of government. Jim O’Connell called it the “purest form of democracy” and Carroll Chappell referred to its long history. People quoted Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln about the “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Charter commission Chairman Michael Gurtler announced the next meeting will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 23, at 8:30 a.m. The meetings are open to the public to observe, though not all are public hearings.
The charter commission’s role is to review the 25-page town charter, Bar Harbor’s governing document, and propose revisions. Any revisions proposed by the charter commission must then be approved by voters.