To the Editor:
Democracy and the rule of law are under attack, nationally in Washington, D.C., and locally here in Bar Harbor.
Specifically, our Town Council at its meeting of July 16 presented citizens with three unacceptable propositions, all in reference to the recently passed citizen initiative Article 4 that made residency a requirement for voting on any and all town boards, committees, etc.
It is worth emphasizing at the outset that this initiative (and its partner citizen initiative Article 5, designed to prevent berthing of large cruise ships) were cleanly and clearly approved by the voters, each receiving more support than any council candidate, and in the case of Article 4, passing by more than a 2:1 margin.
The expressed will of the citizens cannot be flouted and ignored. Instead, the Town Council made the following three invalid and unacceptable assertions at its recent meeting.
First, it claimed authority to modify, replace or “tweak” the substance of a properly passed and overwhelmingly supported citizen initiative. Such authority, if unchallenged and accepted, would make an utter mockery and nullify the substance and intent of the citizen initiative mechanism that is the best current check and balance in local government.
Second, by not providing the information and voting procedures required by the citizen initiative, ignoring its clear and unambiguous language that non-residents can continue to serve but cannot vote on local boards, and by claiming that this restriction should go into effect for future appointments only but not apply to current members, the Town Council is effectively throwing the expressed will of the town’s voters back in their faces.
Third, while previous arguments for membership of non-residents on various town committees were based entirely on these individuals’ unique perspective, knowledge and experience (which is why the citizen initiative repeatedly emphasized that non-residents can and should continue to serve, but in a non-voting capacity), a more revealing argument is now advanced that non-residents have a “property interest” to seek their own or their employers’ benefits by voting on our committees.
Were such “property interests” knowingly and openly handed out, with public understanding, by what formal process and in exchange for what consideration, etc.?
Further, does not such an assertion represent explicit admission of expected and significant pecuniary gain, and thus constitute clear conflict of interest? Such an ethics violation in itself should bar non-voting and even resident (i.e. voting) service on a town committee.
Hopefully, the Town Council will commit itself to following and implementing the citizen initiative ordinances (i.e. laws) in the plain terms and spirit decisively supported by the voters. If not, the following consequences are likely.
First, formal appeals will be made to the Maine State Attorney General (i.e., law enforcement) and Ethics Commission (for flagrant violation of basic good governance, i.e. ethics, codes). Depending on the outcome of these appeals, court action(s) could very well follow, as well as public awareness and social media campaigns regarding the businesses supporting and benefitting from such corrupt practices.
Next, preparation for two further citizen initiatives will begin. In one, a strong and practical council recall mechanism will be designed and put to voters for inclusion in the Town Charter.
Second, a local equivalent of the national Hatch Act, that prohibits paid public employees (as opposed to elected officeholders) from speaking and campaigning for political goals, will be proposed.
While some might argue that further initiatives are not needed with a charter review presently underway, the fate of that effort is seriously in doubt due to its apparent current intent to gut and eliminate the much-appreciated Warrant Committee, that may very well lead to a proposed charter revision being rejected by the voters. In any case, the recall and Hatch-like initiatives could be added to either a maintained or revised Town Charter.
Finally, oft-repeated and unacceptable behavior by town employees should be noted and addressed in upcoming performance reviews. Any public statements of demonstrable falsehoods, attempts to intimidate voters from exercising their most basic free speech rights, failure to follow established administrative procedures for public awareness and access (especially if accusing others of such transgressions), etc., should factor into future employment decisions. Let us all remember who works for, and is paid by, whom.
In closing, it is to be noted with regret that our town government appears to feel that by isolating itself from citizen input these voices can be not heard and ignored. In fact, this writer emailed the new council chair to request a personal and low-key discussion of these issues, with no response.
Rules explicitly preclude citizen input during the public comment section on any matter on a Town Council meeting agenda. Further, apart from a public hearing, citizens are frequently denied the opportunity to offer input at council meeting.
Discussion through this public exchange thus appears to be the only avenue available in Bar Harbor for citizen input on matters of grave public concern.
Charles Sidman, Bar Harbor