To the Editor:
The latest Town Council-sponsored POLCO survey curiously claims that Bar Harbor voters have difficulty understanding “the highly technical language” of our Land Use Ordinance (“LUO”).
To resolve this alleged issue of uneducated voters, the POLCO survey implicitly lobbies for leaving all changes to our LUO in the hands of a bare majority of the Town Council rather than with us voters at our annual Town Meeting. Our town government should educate itself on how well educated Bar Harbor voters are.
According to the most recent population surveys, almost 55 percent of Bar Harbor adults have a four-year bachelor’s degree or higher. Almost 20 percent of Bar Harbor adults have either a master’s or doctoral degree. Almost 30 percent of Bar Harbor voters have completed some college, without a four-year degree. Do not sell us citizens short. We are not, as one councilor regrettably said: “rabble.”
The questions and explanations in the current POLCO survey reflect a troubling level of misinformation about Bar Harbor’s government. For example, the second question asks who should vote on the annual budget, the “Town Meeting,” the “Town Council,” or the “Town Warrant.” The anonymous drafters of this question should read the town charter. Both the Town Council and the voters at our Town Meeting vote on the budget.
The town warrant is a written paper ballot which is presented to voters at the annual Town Meeting, not a separate body with separate voting powers. A question which equates a written paper ballot with two deliberative bodies makes no sense.
The “explanatory” paragraph which precedes this question notes that only 3 percent of registered voters voted on the budget at the annual Town Meeting. It implicitly suggests that this low turnout should be remedied by leaving final say over the budget to a four person majority of the Town Council. That represents just a tenth of one percent of registered voters in Bar Harbor. The solution to low voter turnout is not to eliminate the voter’s right to vote and entrust it to four members of the Town Council who themselves were elected at low turnout elections.
Question 3 asks whether all or part of the Planning Board should be elected. The “explanatory” paragraph describes the Planning Board as a “quasi-judicial board” that approves individual development proposals but “is not a policy-making body” and “works at the direction of the Town Council.”
The anonymous drafters of this language are dead wrong on these last two points. They need to read the LUO that they believe is too “technical” for the average voter to understand.
The Planning Board is the principal drafter of most proposed amendments to the LUO and, per LUO Section 125-9, can initiate amendments on its own, respond to requests for amendments from a property owner and consider amendments proposed by the Town Council.
The Planning Board is also a quasi-legislative body. It has powers to shape policy and nothing in the LUO gives the Town Council any role in Planning Board decisions other than the power to suggest LUO amendments that the Planning Board need do nothing more than “consider” under Section 125-9.
Question 4 in this POLCO survey includes the claim that “highly technical” LUO amendments are difficult for voters to understand and asks whether LUO amendments should be enacted by a four person majority of the Town Council or the voters at our Town Meeting.
This question reflects a misunderstanding of the LUO and its emphasis on voters having the final say on how our land is used. Currently, under the LUO, all LUO amendments must first be placed on the ballot by the Town Council and then approved by the voters at our Town Meeting.
Question 6 suffers from the same slanted question and incorrect explanation defects. It asks whether the Warrant Committee should be radically downsized from 22 to 7 members without noting that recasting it as a Budget Committee would strip it of the powers to make advisory recommendations to the voters on LUO amendments.
As that is the heart of the likely proposed changes the Charter Commission will make, the refusal to ask a straightforward question of POLCO respondents is regrettable.
We Bar Harbor citizens need to be told that the Charter Commission is considering stripping these advisory LUO duties from the Warrant Committee and depriving the voters of the healthy second set of eyes the Warrant Committee has been for proposed LUO amendments.
The Town Council had to pull the LUO rewrite from the ballot two separate times when a member or members of the Warrant Committee discovered drafting errors that neither the Planning Board nor the Town Council had caught. This radical change in a system that has benefited the town repeatedly should be clearly described to the voters in this POLCO survey if the survey is to have any legitimacy.
This POLCO survey is like a “push poll.” A poll so slanted in its questions that the result is pre-determined. Let Bar Harbor voters respond to this poll and demonstrate that they are more careful than the anonymous crafters of this poll who apparently desire to mislead them.
Our democracy thrives with more decision-makers, not fewer. Our democracy thrives with more information, not less. Our democracy thrives with more vigorous debate, not less.
Let us not make Bar Harbor less democratic by radically restructuring its most representative body, the 22-member Warrant Committee, and stripping the voters at the annual Town Meeting of their power to control budgets and the use of land that we should carefully preserve for future generations. Let us honor the intelligence of Bar Harbor voters by reserving to us the right to have the final say on how our residential and commercial land is developed and how our tax dollars are spent.