BAR HARBOR — Improving opportunities for interested citizens to serve on the town’s Warrant Committee will be the goal of a newly created subcommittee, following a vote Monday.
The committee’s work is normally complete following a joint meeting with the Town Council in late March. This week’s meeting was added so the committee could consider a late change to one warrant article. Also on the agenda were discussions about the committee’s nomination process and conflict-of-interest questions.
Warrant Committee members said they have felt under attack by the Town Council during their joint meeting and when there have been accusations of bias or conflicts of interest.
“Warrant Committee members tend to look at each other defeated after our joint meeting with council,” committee member Amanda Kendall said. “We think, ‘We were treated like children again.’”
Member John Kelly said this year’s committee “has been unfairly characterized as overstepping its role” because its report to council included additional recommendations on items not specifically included in the budget or warrant.
According to the committee bylaws, the committee’s report “shall contain any commentary which the Warrant Committee elects to have included in the report.” The committee voted on including additional recommendations, such as increased inspections for weekly rentals, and only those which received majority votes were included in the report.
“There are only two elected bodies in our town government,” member Jake Jagel said, “Town Council and the Warrant Committee. The Warrant Committee is the single check and balance on the council.”
“We’re not even a check,” Secretary Seth Libby said, “we’re an asterisk.” If the Warrant Committee recommends rejection of a warrant article, he said, “we’re saying go slow, get some feedback, these are some issues.” But the committee’s role is purely advisory, he said.
Nomination and elections
The Warrant Committee is elected annually at open town meeting to one-year terms. A nominating committee is charged with presenting a slate of 22 candidates. Other candidates may be nominated from the floor.
The nominating committee is chaired by the moderator from the previous year’s town meeting (Ron Beard this year), and includes the Warrant Committee chair and secretary (John Dargis and Seth Libby, respectively). Two other residents are appointed by the nominating committee chair (Nina St. Germain and Martha Searchfield).
When the nominating committee met earlier this month, they voted 3-2 to keep with precedent that all currently seated members willing to serve be nominated.
“I understood the other point of view, but didn’t feel I could break with precedent,” Dargis told the Warrant Committee Monday. “I do think it should be more democratic. The idea that sitting members have an essentially unending term doesn’t make a lot of sense either.”
When Beard cast the tiebreaking vote in the nominating committee, Libby said, he conditioned it on a request that the Warrant Committee come up with a way to create more turnover in the group.
“He asked us to intentionally find a way to accommodate more voices on the board while preserving institutional knowledge.” Some ideas that have been floated, such as rotating Warrant Committee members between subcommittees, could be accomplished with changes to the group’s bylaws, while others would require changes to the town charter.
Committee members suggested a written application for those interested in serving and coming up with criteria to help the nominating committee fairly decide between applicants. Members could serve longer, staggered terms, which would mean only seven or eight members would be elected each year.
“We need to inform applicants of the schedule and expectations,” said Cas Dowden, who is stepping down this year after more than a decade on the committee. “People need to know what they are getting into.”
Many said the current situation, with many more applicants than seats available, is probably temporary. They were wary of making permanent changes to the nomination and election process, saying the nominating committee likely will have to recruit members actively again in the future.
When Warrant Committee candidates are nominated from the floor of town meeting, Donna Karlson said, it’s unfair for nominators to single out current members they say should be voted off if those current members don’t have a chance to respond.
Dargis is set to convene the subcommittee soon, hoping to have recommendations ready to bring back to another Warrant Committee meeting and then the Town Council before town meeting on June 6.
Before the joint meeting March 28 between the Warrant Committee and Town Council, committee member Jake Jagel identified an error in one of the land use ordinance amendments on the June ballot. Since then, the Town Council, Planning Board and a Warrant Committee subcommittee all have signed off on the correction.
Article 2 adds “parking lot” as an allowed primary use in several districts, but the districts listed in the text of the amendment did not match the changes in the chart of allowed uses, appendix C.
“I’m pleased the Warrant Committee found the inconsistency,” Planning Director Bob Osborne said. “That’s a really important job the committee has. You folks are to be applauded for that.” In the future, he said, “I hope we can find a mechanism to identify issues with articles sooner.”