To the Editor:
The Islander’s description of the choice voters have to create a Bar Harbor charter commission on Nov. 6 (Articles 2 and 2A) misses the mark. A charter commission does not present individual amendments to the voters which they can individually assess. By state statute, a charter commission completely repeals the old charter and replaces it with a new charter which voters must accept or reject in its entirety. With individual charter amendments, the voters can accept wise amendments and reject foolish ones. With a charter commission, the voters are given no such discretion.
The charter is Bar Harbor’s constitution. Maine has had its constitution for almost 200 years, and the United States has had its constitution for over 230 years. Never has either Maine or the United States taken the radical step of calling a constitutional convention, the equivalent of a charter commission. Instead, individual amendments have been individually considered. Many have been rejected and many have been enacted. Why should Bar Harbor not be guided by this more deliberate and careful approach?
Just ten years ago, Bar Harbor had another charter commission, chaired by Jill Goldthwait. It made few substantive changes; there was little need to fix a document that had served us well.
Why has the council insisted on expending time, taxpayer money, and public good will on another repeal and replacement of a charter that Jill Goldthwait’s charter commission saw little reason to change when it issued its final report nine years ago? Current council chair, Gary Friedmann, stated, per the minutes of the March 20 council meeting, that a charter commission was ill-advised at this contentious time and was seen as an attack on the warrant committee. As Dr. Anne Marie Quin informed the council at its October 16 meeting, the Maine Municipal Association strongly advises against creation of a charter commission during contentious times.
The current charter wisely divides power among the annual town meeting, the warrant committee, and the town council. This division of power has served the town well. A revised charter could, as some have urged, limit or eliminate the annual town meeting and the warrant committee and present Bar Harbor voters with a city council form of government. A city council has the power of final votes on budgets and land use ordinance changes which, under Bar Harbor’s charter, are given to the voters at the annual town meeting. A charter commission could be the risky first step towards depriving the voters of direct local control over budgets and zoning changes.
Although Maine law requires that the question of a charter committee be presented to the voters as a simple one of “revising the Municipal Charter or establishing a New Municipal Charter,” 30-A M.R.S. § 2102(5), the council has presented a lengthy warrant article which implies to voters that the charter commission will be focused on only a few items, including re-structuring of the warrant committee.
Three times in the last ten years, our town government has been found by the Hancock County Superior Court to have violated state law, the town charter, and/or the town’s land use ordinance. The solution to this failure to follow the law is for the town council to read and understand the charter that gives it limited power, not to use a charter commission process to increase council control.
Our current charter works well. It strikes an appropriate balance between the annual town meeting, the town council, and warrant committee. It assures direct voter control over budget and land use issues.
As council membership changes every few years, one cannot predict how a future council might wield increased power that a charter commission might give it.
I know of no one outside the council who is advocating initiating a charter commission process just nine years after the last charter commission issued its thoughtful report. The town should focus on priorities for the entire community: our schools, increase in year round employment, and affordable housing. We should focus on the long term and ask ourselves and the council what will best serve our community for generations to come.