Warrant Committee, land use are focus of charter proposal

BAR HARBOR — The process for amending the town’s Land Use Ordinance, the size of the Warrant Committee and the process by which Warrant Committee members are elected are among the changes to the Town Charter proposed in a new report.

These and other smaller changes, such as streamlining the budget process, are included in the first draft report published earlier this month by the Charter Commission.

Any changes to the charter must be approved by voters to take effect. After more meetings and a public hearing on Nov. 18, the Charter Commission will revise proposed changes in a final report.

Following revisions, the changes are scheduled to be voted on at the June 2020 Town Meeting.

The commission is proposing to reduce the Warrant Committee from 22 members to 15.

Currently, Warrant Committee members are nominated by a five-member Nominating Committee, and the entire slate of nominees must be approved or rejected in a yes or no vote at Town Meeting.

Under the proposal, each member would be individually elected on the written ballot alongside Town Council and School Committee members.

The current charter gives the Town Council the power to approve any ordinance change with the exception of LUO changes; these must be approved by voters at a town meeting or election. The commission is proposing a change that would allow changes to the LUO to be approved instead by a supermajority vote of the Town Council. The Planning Board must also approve of any proposed change by a supermajority.

A supermajority is defined in the report as “two-thirds of the full membership of the body rounded up to the nearest whole number.” A supermajority of Planning Board members is at least four out of five; and a supermajority of town councilors is at least five out of seven.

Under the current charter, Planning Board and Warrant Committee members make recommendations on proposed land use changes, which are then approved by a simple majority of voters by ballot. Except in the case of a change brought by citizen initiative, if the Planning Board recommends rejection of a proposed change, voters must approve it by the two-thirds margin.

The rationale for expanding the Town Council’s authority to include LUO changes, according to the draft report, is to “allow for the town to modify the Land Use Ordinance in a timely and efficient manner.”

Included in proposed charter revisions is the specification that voters will “have the power to require reconsideration … of any adopted Land Use Ordinance Amendment” to be approved or rejected by ballot at Town Meeting, using the existing citizen referendum process.

Other proposed changes include streamlining the budget process. Under these proposed changes, the Town Manager has flexibility to set a timeline for the budget review process, as long as the budget is submitted “by the first Tuesday in February each year.”

Struck from the existing text of the charter are references to deadlines with specific numbers of days. For example, department heads and committee chairs would no longer be required to submit their funding requests to the Town Manager “fifty-six days before the Town Manager is required to submit the budget” each year.

It is also proposed that the Warrant Committee and Town Council review the budget together at a joint meeting with the Town Manager, followed by joint meetings with town staff.

These changes are meant to create “a more efficient and streamlined approach for the development, review and comment on the annual town budget,” according to the report.

New wording also proposes allowing electronic voting to be used at Town Meeting if approved by Town Council.

“Some parts [of the voting process] have to be by written ballot,” Charter Commission Chair Michael Gurtler told the Islander, “but if it’s possible, then council can choose this form [of voting].”

The term “electronic voting” could mean electronic clickers during open meeting, or voting machines on election day.

“We didn’t want to limit it to anything specific,” he said, which would have to be changed again as new technology is developed.

The use of electronic voting technology, the draft report stated, “can expedite voting on budgetary articles not requiring written vote … help increase participation in Town Meeting and mitigate social pressure on controversial items.”

“There are people who don’t want to raise their hand,” Gurtler said. “This would alleviate that issue.”

When presenting the draft report to Town Council last week, Gurtler had good things to say about the Charter Commission and the process they have followed so far.

“We had nine people that … worked together with great respect,” he said. “It was not a difficult job to facilitate these meetings. In that light it was a good process. It was draining at times, but it was a good process.”

However, noting that he also served on the last Charter Commission 10 years ago, Gurtler acknowledged that “this one was significantly different.”

Describing one of the more contentious public hearings the Charter Commission hosted, Gurtler joked, “It was a public hearing, but there wasn’t a lot of hearing going on.”

“I think the big issue is going to be the recommendation to allow the council to have some power around Land Use Ordinance amendments,” Gurtler said in an interview with the Islander. He called that the “make or break” issue.

That was also the issue that did not have unanimous approval in the charter commission, Gurtler told town councilors last week.

A “minority opinion” submitted by Charter Commission members Julie Berberian and Anna Durand explained the members’ objections.

“We believe Land Use Ordinance amendments should continue to be included on the warrant at Town Meeting, rather than by being decided by a two-thirds majority vote by Town Council and Planning Board as proposed in these Charter changes,” Berberian and Durand wrote.

“We support the efforts that the Town Planner has begun to expand public participation in Land Use Ordinance amendment changes through improved public hearings, announced agendas, etc.” they wrote. “These are a welcome part of the process, yet should not be the process itself.”

Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

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