To the Editor:
Apparently, a majority of the Charter Commission still believes that the problem with its proposed radical re-write of our charter is one of style, not substance. A majority of the commission is looking for ways to tweak their radical re-write in order to better sell it to Bar Harbor voters. Chair Gurtler has said: “I trust our elected officials.”
Left unsaid was the underlying rationale of this radical re-write: A majority of the Charter Commission appears not to trust Bar Harbor voters.
Over 90 percent of the many, many citizens who addressed the Charter Commission at its public hearing on Nov. 18 spoke out against this radical re-write.
This mirrored the overwhelming majority of citizens who have advocated for a fully empowered Warrant Committee and voter control of Land Use Ordinance (LUO)/zoning amendments at two prior public hearings of the commission.
Perhaps a majority of commissioners didn’t believe their ears.
I suggest that those commissioners use their eyes and read the POLCO results on charter revision: 71 percent of respondents want all or some of the Planning Board to be elected by the voters; 58 percent of respondents do not want to see the Warrant Committee downsized and stripped of its powers; and 72 percent of respondents want voters at annual Town Meetings to vote yes or no on LUO amendments.
Yet the current radical revision the Charter Commission proposes ignores these strong voter preferences and places its faith in the Town Council and the Planning Board the Town Council itself appoints.
The Charter Commission majority is still hoping to grant the power to enact LUO amendments to four members of the Planning Board and five members of the Town Council. However, voters believe that decisions as to how this small sliver of land between Acadia National Park and Frenchman Bay is used are better made by up to 4,000 registered voters rather than a mere nine individuals.
Now the commission is suggesting that the council, itself, will exercise this extraordinary power only when the LUO changes are routine. But the decision as to what LUO amendments are “routine” would be left to the council. Let’s be clear: voters have approved truly routine LUO changes. The LUO rewrite was incorrectly described as routine in June of 2015, but the voters wisely rejected it. In June of 2016, nine routine LUO amendments were unanimously endorsed by the Warrant Committee and the voters passed them overwhelmingly. In June of 2018, the Warrant Committee unanimously endorsed the integration of Appendix C into the LUO proper and the voters passed it overwhelmingly.
If the council decides that a LUO amendment is routine, then it will be quickly passed by the council. The only way voters could then challenge this council-approved LUO amendment would be to immediately start and succeed in a referendum, or people’s veto, campaign in just 30 days.
I count 12 steps to such a referendum campaign, including gathering 300 signatures from registered voters, all of which must be done in those 30 days. There has never been a successful referendum campaign in Bar Harbor because accomplishing these 12 tasks in but 30 days is all but impossible.
Nor should we, as the Charter Commission majority seems to believe, just trust the Town Council and Planning Board to always do the right thing. Elected and appointed bodies, untrained in the law, can make mistakes. At least five times in the last three years, the Planning Board has rejected the Town Attorney’s legal advice as to what the LUO requires. Three times in the last six years, the Hancock County Superior Court has found that the Town Council had violated state law, the Charter or the LUO in the way it implemented or refused to implement LUO changes.
As the Islander pointed out in its Oct. 31 editorial, the council “likely violated the Town Charter” in its appointment of Jill Goldthwait to replace Judy Noonan on the council. I am not criticizing either the council or the Planning Board in pointing this out, but simply stating the unavoidable facts: These bodies made mistakes. This is why having both the voters and the Warrant Committee as a check on actions by the council and the Planning Board is so critical.
However, this radical revision of the charter would strip the Warrant Committee of its valuable role as a check and balance on other branches of government, limit it to a review of less than half of our total budget, prohibit it from meeting in subcommittees, and expect the committee to complete the one task left to it, reviewing the municipal budget, only, in but 14 business days. Former Council Chair Friedmann, when he voted against a charter revision process last spring, said that this process would be a continuation of a war on the Warrant Committee.
Leaders are strong when they can listen to dissent and learn from it. Thanks to the Warrant Committee’s careful work, we have not converted all of Route 102 from the head of the island to Town Hill into a commercial strip; we don’t have employee rooming houses and employee dormitories legal everywhere in town; we have limited huge electrical substations to the commercial districts where they are needed and not our residential neighborhoods; we have stopped the town from building a money-losing parking garage behind the West Street Hotel that would benefit the hotel, but not the taxpayers; and we have precluded the building of an enormous pier to berth some of the world’s largest cruise ships.
Without the wisdom of the Warrant Committee and Bar Harbor voters, this town might well have “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”