Editorial: More sets of eyes

Our Town Meeting forms of government feature lots of opportunities for the public to review and weigh in on the budget and other important decisions before a town. Citizen involvement in local government is a staple of life in New England towns, and we’re better off because of it.

Town staff prepare a budget and work with selectmen or councilors to get the budget ready for prime time. Then, in many towns, a warrant or budget committee provides an extra set of eyes on behalf of the voters, studying the proposal carefully to understand changes from prior years and the reasons for those changes and to catch any mistakes in the proposal.

In Southwest Harbor, a Warrant Committee of 7-12 members is appointed by the Board of Selectmen. According to its enabling ordinance, its role is to review and make recommendations to the selectmen on the municipal and school budgets.

In Mount Desert, a 20-person Warrant Committee is appointed by the Board of Selectmen. The group studies and makes recommendations on each of the warrant articles before a Town Meeting. Their deliberations help surface important information; report of a divided Warrant Committee vote on an article can draw questions from voters at Town Meeting, where everyone can hear more about the debate.

Bar Harbor’s 22-person Warrant Committee also reviews each warrant article, not just the budget. The committee is technically elected, rather than appointed, but since Town Meeting must vote up or down on the full slate of candidates it’s not much of an election.

The slate is prepared by a Nominating Committee consisting of the chair, vice-chair, moderator of the previous Town Meeting and two others. The moderator is not required to be a registered voter of the town.

Most years, that group must work to recruit enough new people to replace any current committee members wishing to step down. But two years ago, the town received many more applications for the Warrant Committee than there were open seats, putting the Nominating Committee in the unenviable position of picking winners and losers.

The committee decided the fairest way to proceed was to re-appoint all of the existing members willing to continue to serve. That was reasonable, given the circumstances, but it highlighted the problems with the process.

The Warrant Committee slate is elected for a one-year term, but any member willing to continue to serve is usually re-nominated. There are no term limits on the Town Council or boards and committees; indeed, in other towns, some selectmen serve for decades. But they must be re-elected every few years, and if voters feel another candidate would represent the town better, they are replaced. Warrant Committee members have no such review.

In that year with so many applications, the Warrant Committee did draft a proposal to the Town Council to adjust the election process. The Town Council decided instead to defer the discussion to a future Charter Commission.

The Charter Commission is now considering a significant restructuring that could do away with the Warrant Committee as it’s currently set up. Current Warrant Committee members are obviously interested in the discussion and are participating in public hearings, but the discussion is already weighed down by deep mistrust and suspicion.

Most of the details of how Bar Harbor’s Warrant Committee works are spelled out in the committee’s internal bylaws, which the committee itself can adjust by majority vote.

Because of the committee’s large size, it splits into subcommittees to do its work. Each subcommittee has at least four members; the Warrant Committee Chair does not serve on any subcommittee. Subcommittees on public works; education; health, welfare and recreation; and protection review a portion of the budget with town staff and present their findings to the full committee.

A fifth subcommittee, assigned to general government, reviews zoning changes, citizen initiatives and other warrant articles. These tend to be the most contentious and hold the most public interest. Assigning such a small group to matters of such importance is at best redundant and at worst a contradiction of the “more sets of eyes” spirit of warrant review.

The subcommittees also pose a challenge under open meeting laws, though the members make concerted efforts to stay within the rules. More than two members of any committee or subcommittee discussing official business outside of an official meeting skates close to the line of an illegal meeting.

Members are certainly free to advocate personal positions before other town bodies, and in public via letters to the editor or other forums. Several years ago, an attorney for the town defended the right of a Warrant Committee member to speak against a zoning change before the Planning Board. But matters under discussion at any given time by the Town Council or Planning Board are likely to come to the Warrant Committee in the future. Do informal group discussions of those issues — including the current Charter Commission ideas — before they are forwarded to the committee constitute illegal meetings?

Mount Desert’s Warrant Committee used to use the subcommittee structure. The members found it didn’t work well and the committee now operates as a large group.

The Charter Commission is exploring how a better balance might be struck between efficiency and openness to public input. Serving on a Warrant Committee is a wonderful way to learn about and contribute to town government. But the process can and should be improved.

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