By Michael Gurtler
By now, everyone knows that an important time of decision making is upon every registered voter. This is true for national, state and local elections in November. Among those decisions facing the voters of Bar Harbor are nine articles on the Town Warrant that propose changes to our Town Charter. Our charter, to use an analogy, is somewhat like the constitution to our town.
These changes have not been proposed in haste nor were they developed in a vacuum. The people of Bar Harbor voted in the fall of 1998 to establish a Charter Commission to review the charter and then elected six people to form the Charter Commission; three more were appointed by the Town Council according to established procedure. The commission worked over the next 13 months to create a report that was presented to the council and eventually ended up on this fall’s Town Meeting warrant. During those 13 months, the commission held meetings, researched information, listened to input, held several public hearings, solicited legal approval and eventually, after hundreds of hours, submitted the final recommendations that all voters will consider in November.
I was privileged to be elected to the commission and later elected as chairman. I saw my duty as such not as an influencer but rather a facilitator. It is in that role that I now write. I do not wish to influence your vote but rather present information for you to consider and provide direction for where you may find more information. It should be, as in any discussion, that you develop your own opinion based on how you evaluate the information that has been provided to you.
These nine changes have been met mostly with support. The commission has recommended six of the nine changes unanimously and three with a super majority. The Town Council supported six of the articles unanimously and three articles with one councilor dissenting. The Warrant Committee recommended adoption of five articles and rejection of four.
The Charter Commission’s final report, meeting minutes, recording of public hearings and the recordings, more recently, of Town Council and Warrant Committee deliberations are all available on the town website. The rationale for each proposed change is also listed in the final report of the commission.
While the majority of proposals are supported, I’d like to highlight the following three proposed changes to provide the rationale followed by the commission:
Article 4 proposes an alternative method for making minor changes to the Land Use Ordinance (LUO). Some feedback suggests this proposal takes the power for making LUO regulations away from the people of the town. The proposed article allows for only minor or procedural changes to be made and only after mandatory public hearings and recommendation of a supermajority of both the Planning Board and Town Council. The language was carefully considered to provide an efficient method to “reconcile inconsistencies, contradictions and errors or to bring the land use ordinance into compliance with statutes.” The article provides a mechanism to amend minor aspects of the LUO without the lengthy process currently in place, thereby making it more dynamic and citizen friendly. New or substantial amendments to the LUO would continue to be voted upon at Town Meeting.
Article 7 provides for an updated town budget development process where the staff of the town prepare the budget under the direction of the Town Manager and then present it to both the council and Warrant Committee for review and comment in a concurrent time period as opposed to the lengthier timeframe currently utilized. This proposal introduces a new budget development timeline that encourages a more streamlined approach for the development, review and comment on the annual town budget. These recommended changes allow for an effective use of time and human resources, provides a process where the Warrant Committee and Town Council will have the same, simultaneous access to budget information and staff time so that each body may review, comment and make recommendations on the annual town budget. Both the council and Warrant Committee will continue to conduct their review and recommendations separately after the initial joint presentation by the town staff. This proposed article seeks to make the process more efficient while honoring the processes now in place and being more conscious of staff and volunteer time.
Article 8 establishes an election process for the Warrant Committee that is consistent with both the Town Council and school board, making all three elected bodies of the town follow the same election process. The Warrant Committee currently follows a process different from other elected bodies where a nominating committee develops a recommended slate of committee members that is then presented at the live Town Meeting for approval. The proposed article will encourage greater transparency to the election process by having Warrant Committee members elected by ballot, where a greater number of voters participate, in the same manner as council and the school board. The second part of this proposed article moves the Warrant Committee’s membership from 22 to 15, maintaining diversity with a group size more than twice the number of other elected bodies while providing for a size that is reflective of the efficiencies proposed in the other articles on the ballot. The Warrant Committee serves an important role for many voters and the involvement of all members in the review process is important at this role continues moving forward.
Finally, I’d like to thank everyone in our community for their energies and commitment while engaged in the 13-month process. I also thank you for your time in reading this letter and for thoughtfully deciding on your vote in November.
Michael Gurtler is the immediate past chairman of the Bar Harbor Charter Commission.