Undue influence

As voters in communities across Down East Maine go to the polls at town meetings in the coming weeks and months, the annual ritual of multiple levels of budget review and re-review will replay itself.

Although residents in most towns have the final legislative say, over the years, redundant layers of municipal scrutiny have evolved.

Usually, town staff proposes a budget and other issues for consideration at town meeting. Those items then are reviewed by selectmen or town councilors. On zoning matters, members of the planning board may be involved. After that, warrant committees – groups of citizen volunteers – are charged with giving everything on the warrant an unbiased and impartial look before sending it on to voters with their recommendations.

Voters at town meeting then get to consider advisories from all those review bodies before making up their own minds.

The appropriate method for dissemination of those recommendations, however, is open to some debate.

Numerous laws prohibit “electioneering,” advocating for a specific candidate or issue, within a fixed distance of polling places. The law bans signs and prevents candidates from asking for votes. In Bar Harbor, however, the current town meeting warrant system directs that Town Council, Planning Board and Warrant Committee recommendations be printed on the actual ballots residents take with them into the voting booth. With an increasingly partisan tone in those recommendations, particularly in other than budget items, that practice needs rethinking.

In the ferry terminal zoning question placed on the ballot by citizen petition in Bar Harbor, the Warrant Committee voted Monday night to recommend passage. Two Warrant Committee members were members of the group that circulated the petition. At least one of those organizers served on a subcommittee that recommended passage to the full committee. Still more members of the Warrant Committee were among petition signatories. On Monday, the committee discussed whether or not that involvement constituted a conflict of interest, deciding it did not.

None recused themselves from participating in the committee’s deliberations on the issue.

Recusal of all involved in the petition effort, however, would not have been fair. Were everyone on the committee who supported the petition prior to its deliberations disqualified, in theory that would provide an automatic advantage to opponents. The printed ballot could have had an entirely different recommendation.

Best practice holds that people agreeing to serve on a warrant committee refrain from partisan political entanglements on issues that might come before it. But that no longer seems to be a priority.

As this page has suggested previously, it is time to end the practice of printing vote recommendations from any board or committee on the ballot. Between public hearings, open debates, media coverage, social media and other avenues, there is no shortage of opportunities for residents to educate themselves on the issues and positions by the various deliberative bodies, before a town meeting vote.

Keeping electioneering away from polling places is a worthy goal. That principle also should apply to the actual printed ballot. The ballot should present the issue for decision, free of any attempts to influence that decision.



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