Letter to Editor: Don’t take away voting rights

To the Editor:

A chilling “draft” has been created by seven members of the Charter Commission trying to hammer a huge hole in the very foundation of the voting rights of every Bar Harbor citizen. What?

Since January of this year, I have been attending and following the Charter Commission’s public meetings and hearings and, through public comments and letters, I have weighed in on its proposed changes.

Let me be crystal clear about one point: seven members of the Charter Commission are proposing this dramatic downsizing of our voting rights. However, two Charter Commission members, Julie Berberian and Anna Durand, have been tirelessly working to block this demolition of our long-standing right to vote directly on any changes to our Land Use Ordinance (“LUO”) or zoning laws.

So what exactly do these seven Charter Commission members propose to take away from us voters? It’s simple: these seven Charter Commission members want a so-called “super-majority” of Town Councilors (just five people) and Planning Board members (just four people) to enact changes to our LUO or zoning laws instead of what we Bar Harbor voters have done since time immemorial. We have gone on Election Day two times a year and voted directly “Yes” or “No” on any ballot questions on LUO amendments or zoning changes.

Why do I think we voters should continue to vote directly on LUO amendments instead of just five people acting on the recommendation of four Planning Board members?

We all know that our property, land, and waterfront are under major pressure as to what is legally allowed in Bar Harbor. We have very little land available for our homes and businesses and the LUO helps ensure that that land is used wisely and for the common good of the entire community. Our right to vote, one person, one vote, is the strongest and most democratic way we citizens have to control the legal use and development of every square inch of our residential and business properties and those of our neighbors.

A simple hypothetical example would be a proposed LUO amendment that allowed buildings to be 70 feet high, instead of the current 40 feet maximum in some of our 40 zoning districts. Do you, the voter and your neighbors, want to vote yourself on this type of LUO amendment or would your rather give the final say to five Town Councilors and four Planning Board members? Please remember, the members of the Town Council may change at any annual town election. At this June’s election, three Town Council seats will be open.

This major demolition of our voting rights on LUO amendments proposed by these seven Charter Commission members also takes down other foundational cornerstones of our current Charter by using misleading phrases that their shiny new Charter changes will result in “efficiency” and “streamlining.”

I don’t remember ever learning that our great American democracy was fought for and founded upon desires for “efficiency” or “streamlining,” for just nine people to have the right to vote for such significant legislative changes in our small town rather than the whole citizenry. Instead, the American Revolution and our democracy “of the people, by the people, and for the people” has striven to increase voting rights, not freeze the people out of the voting booth.

Another risk to our voting rights in this huge hole being hammered by seven Charter Commission members is the deceptive way the citizens’ referendum process is being described. The “referendum” proposed in this “new” change is that any citizen can thwart the vote of these nine councilors and Planning Board members through the so-called “new” referendum process. What would this referendum attempt to repeal LUO amendments actually entail if a citizen wanted to do it?

(1) You, ASAP, preferably the Wednesday morning after a Tuesday night Town Council meeting “supermajority” vote, would need to start drafting your opposition referendum question that would be printed on the official election written ballot for the next election. (You are really advised to hire lawyers to help you with the drafting and vetting of your ballot question.)

(2) You need to organize a circulating referendum committee. This is a legal process involving forms and procedures that have to be deemed legally correct by our Town Clerk.

(3) You need to train and inform your signature gatherers on how to do this legally. Otherwise, signatures could be deemed invalid and legally challenged.

(4) You need to find a way to reach the public to advocate for passage of your referendum (think time and money) and obtain over 300 signatures of registered voters.

(5) You need to complete all of this and have it deemed “sufficient” and legal by the Town Clerk in just 30 days of the Town Council’s supermajority vote. Obviously, this would be a daunting challenge by itself, without the added pressures of work, school and family responsibilities.

And these seven members of the commission are promoting this as a “new,” shiny, democratic right that any citizen can whip through in 30 days to repeal a Town Council supermajority vote.

The kicker, or the truth, is that we citizens of Bar Harbor already have this referendum right at sections C-43 through C-49 of the current Charter. What these seven commissioners are proposing is neither “new” nor “shiny.” It’s truly tragic that these seven Charter Commission members are attempting a “1984” type of “doublespeak” with the voters of Bar Harbor. This group of seven is deceiving us by telling us they are going to give us something we already legally have. What?

Of course, the real kicker, the truth, is why would any citizen have to endure this onerous repeal referendum process at all? Please just let us voters of Bar Harbor vote directly, one person, one vote, as we have for generations on changes to the LUO, our zoning laws. Let’s keep our Bar Harbor citizens’ democracy strong and don’t try to “fix” what’s not broken.

I urge you to voice your opinions and concerns at the Charter Commission’s public hearing about their proposed charter changes on Monday evening, Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. in the council chamber. If you are unable to attend, please write or email the Charter Commission, whose contact information is on the town’s official website.

I write as a private citizen, not as an elected member of the Warrant Committee.

Donna Karlson

Bar Harbor

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