To the Editor:
As a loyal Islander reader, I was saddened and dismayed to read the inaccurate and personal attack on our fine, community-oriented, Bar Harbor Warrant Committee in the Islander’s anonymous July 4 editorial.
First, the Warrant Committee is not divided into subcommittees because the Warrant Committee is too large. The Warrant Committee is large so that enough smaller committees can examine each discrete part of our town government: Public Works; Schools; Fire and Police; Public Health, Welfare and Recreation; and General Government (the remaining town departments and all other warrant articles, such as Land Use Ordinance (LUO) amendments and Citizens’ Initiatives). Each subcommittee studies its part of the budget on a line-by-line basis and investigates multiple avenues of information to reach an informed recommendation to the full Warrant Committee. For example, the Public Works Subcommittee typically meets with the Public Works Director and may visit project sites and facilities.
Each subcommittee reports their findings and recommendations at a specially designated meeting of the full Warrant Committee and deliberations and debate ensue. Each budget item is voted on by the full Warrant Committee. A similar process is involved for LUO amendments. This carefully focused General Government Subcommittee process is followed by a full Warrant Committee scrutiny and its ultimate final recommendation to the voters. A two-step independent review and “more sets of eyes” are applied for all our important budget items and LUO amendments in the Warrant Committee process.
Second, this independent checks and balances and “second set of eyes” review is done in the full sunshine and transparency required by Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA). Proper notice is given of all subcommittee and full Warrant Committee meetings, public access is assured, and public comment is encouraged.
For the Islander to suggest that “subcommittees also pose a challenge under open meeting laws” is a personal attack unworthy of the editorial’s anonymous writers. I have never seen Islander staff attend a subcommittee meeting during my nine years on the Warrant Committee. I see absolutely no basis for this innuendo.
The Town Council also has subcommittees, yet the Islander has never questioned that process. The Islander need have only researched the town archives, reviewed the Municipal Building’s secure bulletin board or had a discussion with the Town Clerk to confirm that every subcommittee meeting is properly noticed. Warrant Committee members take their legal oaths and ethical obligations seriously.
Third, Warrant Committee members have the same First Amendment rights of free speech and petition as do all Bar Harbor citizens, and all members of the Bar Harbor government.
The Islander has published letters and columns by members of the Planning Board and members of the Town Council on issues that those bodies review. This does not violate the FOAA as this issue advocacy is the right of all elected or appointed officials.
This issue was definitively decided long ago by the town’s attorney, Mary Costigan of Bernstein Shur, but some town officials, such as Town Manager Cornell Knight, apparently refuse to apply it.
They ask how a Warrant Committee member can vote on a citizens’ petition he/she might have helped draft or circulate. They never ask how a Planning Board member can vote on a LUO amendment the Planning Board drafted or how a Town Councilor can vote on an ordinance he helped draft.
Legislation involves issue advocacy and we expect our legislators to have opinions. Do we really expect Senators Collins and King to be silent on issues that might come before them or legislation they routinely draft and sponsor?
The Islander then asks whether “informal group discussions — including the current Charter Commission ideas — before they are forwarded to the committee constitute illegal meetings.” Based on my discussions with the Attorney General’s Office and other lawyers, the answer is an unequivocal “No.”
No Warrant Committee subcommittee has ever met informally or illegally. As described above, timely legal notice is given for all Warrant Committee and subcommittee meetings. The Charter Commission should welcome input from Warrant Committee members before they make any recommendations.
Indeed, it would be unseemly for Warrant Committee members to offer no opinions before the final proposal was made by the Charter Commission and only then begin criticizing it. We should welcome debate and spirited discussion and not impose a gag rule on the Warrant Committee.
Why does the Islander have a double standard for the Warrant Committee? It criticizes Warrant Committee members for speaking out but stays silent when Planning Board members and town councilors offer their opinions to the Charter Commission. The First Amendment protects all of this activity by every elected and appointed official.
The Islander criticizes only the Warrant Committee for doing what every other elected and appointed body in Bar Harbor has done and should do. In my opinion, the Warrant Committee is being maligned because, on occasion, it has dared to disagree with the Town Council and the voters have agreed with the Warrant Committee. Let us have more debate and not impose a gag rule on the Warrant Committee.
Bar Harbor can preserve its democracy and improve its civility by welcoming the voices of those who might occasionally disagree with its Town Council, town manager and Planning Board. Diversity of opinion should be the strength of our community.