By Lydia Goetze
Voter suppression has come home to roost in Southwest Harbor. The recent vote of the Select Men [sic] to remove Article 43 from the Town Meeting warrant means that voters will have no say in whether they support a significant grant fund application after months of planning for the Manset pier area and Chris’ Pond — both projects to benefit all residents.
The Harbor Committee has been developing the Manset plan for a year and a half with the intention of improving parking and traffic flow for fishermen, commercial boat haulers, barge traffic, and recreational boaters. Included in the proposed plans are a harbormaster’s office with bathrooms and a small green space where residents could sit and enjoy watching harbor activity. The fund request was to support loam and seed, etc., for this small area, about 10 percent of the total cost of the project. If received, the funds could not have been spent without voter approval. Over three-fourths of the project’s estimated costs are related to protecting the shoreline from storm surge erosion and flooding to keep this working waterfront functional into the future. By moving to stop the fund request, the Harbor Committee is also ignoring the Comprehensive Plan, which now includes the Harbor Management Plan. Again the voters have been disenfranchised. This is an important failure of local government, whose officials are expected to consider what is best for the town, not to exercise personal preferences and biases.
What is particularly galling about the Select Board vote is that these plans for Manset and Chris’ Pond have been discussed publicly for months— by the Harbor Committee, the Conservation Committee and the Select Board, with leadership from the Maine Coast Heritage Trust on the Chris’ Pond proposal. Information has been readily available to the public. Several volunteers have spent a great deal of time and effort to understand the possibilities, to formulate the plans, to discuss them with residents, and to write the grant proposal with significant technical and financial assistance from the Maine Coast Heritage Trust on the Chris’ Pond portion of the grant request. And then the grant proposal was torpedoed at the last minute by men on both the Select Board and the Harbor Committee who declined to enter the discussion productively from the start and who say little to clarify their thinking.
I am disturbed by the way this decision has been reached and by the acrimonious public discourse around the issue. The Harbor Committee meeting was marked by verbal personal attacks on one man and all four women present, with no intervention by others. The chair of the Harbor Committee and the authors of the grant proposal were women, as are the chair of the Conservation Committee and the MCHT liaison. Is it a coincidence that women did the work and presented these proposals and that the Select Board voted with three men favoring ditching the fund request and two women wanting to move forward? I don’t think so.
When I moved back here in 2005, women were active on most town boards and committees. As public discussion of town affairs became increasingly hostile, they dropped out. I ran for the Select Board in 2014 and served for six years to try to improve the climate and increase women’s participation in our town’s governance. It worked for a while, but I am very concerned that we are sliding back into a culture that makes volunteering for town service hostile to half our population.
We — the residents of Southwest Harbor — need to clean up our act, to have civil discussions that place the town’s welfare front and center, and to have women as well as men run for office and volunteer for service on town boards and committees. All residents have a right to be heard and a responsibility to speak out with respect. The public servants on our town boards and committees need to put the welfare of the town as a whole ahead of personal preferences, and they should give the residents a chance to vote on important matters like this grant proposal.
Lydia Goetze lives in Southwest Harbor.