In Mount Desert and in Bar Harbor this year, local residents have endeavored to move town policy by way of the citizen initiative process available under the towns’ charters.
Like the statewide ballot initiatives that have languished in Augusta for want of agreement on how to implement them, these initiatives have understandable goals. But, also like the statewide initiatives, they’re not a way around disagreement. They can also create confusion and inefficiency, especially if they’re not carefully drafted.
Municipal officers in both towns have struggled to determine whether petitions before them ask them to take action that is moot, or illegal.
In Mount Desert, selectmen were told that a notary public could put a petition on a town meeting warrant even if the board had opted not to.
Councilors in Bar Harbor have asked for legal advice on whether repeat petitions are allowed. For example, the primary goal of a land use ordinance change banning cruise ship berthing piers, some councilors have argued, appeared to be substantially the same as last year’s Article 13, which was defeated. In the case of Article 13, many voters were likely influenced by the “poison pill” in the ferry terminal purchase option agreement: if the zoning change passed, the town couldn’t buy the property. That’s a dramatically different circumstance than the present one, but circumstances will always be different from election to election.
It’s also fair to ask: if repeat citizen initiatives aren’t allowed, then shouldn’t town officials also be prevented from repeat proposals? How many times were parking meters voted down before they passed?
At worst, citizen initiatives can be seen as a vote of no confidence in elected officials, town staff, or the existing form of town government itself.
The combined town meeting-board of selectmen-town manager and town meeting-town council-town manager forms of government our towns use are several steps away from direct democracy. That’s by necessity. At some point, voters have to trust the representatives they’ve elected to represent them and take action. Or, vote them out and see if someone else can do better.