By Arthur Greif
On March 6, Councilor Gary Friedmann described the last three Town Council meetings as being a “war on the Warrant Committee.” This was sad to hear, because the 22-member Warrant Committee is our largest, most diverse and most representative elected body in Bar Harbor.
It caught dozens of errors in the LUO rewrite that no council or Planning Board member had noticed. That rewrite was withdrawn, and the attorney who drafted it refunded part of her fee. The Warrant Committee wisely supported zoning amendments that make sure huge electrical substations will never blight our residential neighborhoods. It has served as a necessary check and balance on a council that too often focuses on commercial interests to the exclusion of our year-round neighborhoods.
On Feb. 6, the council demanded hundreds of pages of documents from five Warrant Committee members. Town Manager Cornell Knight described this request in a Feb. 14 email as an order. The request would include emails to friends, family and fellow voters, would require enormous effort to gather and was allegedly based on the Town Council’s “grave concerns” that Warrant Committee members “have actively worked behind the scenes to influence the position taken by this committee.”
On behalf of my wife, Donna Karlson, concerned about this government overreach and invasion of privacy, I asked the town manager by letter to identify “some express authority in the Charter for the Council to make such a request of another elected branch of government.” The town manager admitted to the Bangor Daily News in a Feb. 15 story that he “wasn’t aware of any authority either board might have over the other.”
Section C-10(2) of the town charter gives the council authority only to investigate appointed officials, and that investigation of elected officials was left to an Ethics Commission consisting of elected officials from all three of the town’s elected bodies, the council, Warrant Committee, and School Committee. This only makes sense. In America, one elected body never has the authority to investigate another elected body.
I was also curious about the Town Council’s “grave concerns” that Warrant Committee members had met secretly before they voted. These concerns are allegedly based on discovery obtained in litigation about these zoning changes brought against the town by a former Warrant Committee member and other property owners. I asked the town manager to provide the entire set of documents that established this “grave concern.” Those documents total 1,580 pages, and I have spent hours reviewing them all. They begin on Nov. 1, 2016 and end on Jan. 1, 2018. Not a single document reflects any deliberation among Warrant Committee members before their final vote on zoning changes on March 27, 2017. Not one.
The manager has pointed to only two pages of ideas for a meeting including two Warrant Committee members (and many concerned voters) on April 17, 2017, three weeks after the Warrant Committee’s final vote. Unless time runs backwards, these Warrant Committee members cannot be deliberating as to how they might vote three weeks earlier.
But the Town Council is now sailing backwards through time, to the blacklisting of the McCarthy era. This became apparent when the council, on March 6, voted to authorize the town manager, in his individual capacity, to make a Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) request of five Warrant Committee members. This individual request is the only lawful way the town manager can request documents from another elected body. The original request was never made under the FOAA. Although the request was only authorized that evening, a majority of the councilors then criticized Warrant Committee members for noncompliance. Rest assured, Karlson will comply with the first lawful request the town manager has made. Sadly, Friedmann claimed that noncompliance with an improper request meant that Warrant Committee members had something to hide. This is reminiscent of Joe McCarthy denouncing as Communists those witnesses who lawfully resisted unlawful orders.
Every elected official has a First Amendment right to voice her opinions on matters that will come before the voters, as articles 12 and 13 did on June 13, 2017. Indeed, the town manager and Town Council chair presented at a forum in late March of 2017 designed to convince the voters to adopt the council’s preferred zoning change and oppose article 13. The council spent town money on flyers advocating the council’s point of view. This is their right. I will fight strenuously to make sure that right is preserved.
This retribution against those who have supported citizen petitions is part of a pattern. In 2015, more than 300 Bar Harbor residents signed petitions to place before the voters in June zoning amendments which barred huge electrical substations in residential neighborhoods. The council refused to comply with the charter and place the matter on the June 2015 ballot. I filed suit in my own name, and the Hancock Superior Court, just one day after oral argument, ordered that the matter be placed on the June ballot. At the June 2015 open town meeting, the council chair and town manager facilitated a challenge to the election of three Warrant Committee members who were falsely charged with “suing the Town.” They facilitated the challenge by authorizing the production of ballots and a computer display so voters could see the names of the write-in nominees.
However, these three Warrant Committee members had done nothing more than sign or circulate petitions. This attempted purge by town government failed. Later, on May 11, 2017, the town was informed by its own attorney that the procedure it had facilitated in 2015 was a charter violation and could not be used again in 2017.
This continued attack on Warrant Committee members who have had the courage to speak truth to power must stop. Power must be willing to listen to uncomfortable truths and must encourage, not punish, dissent. Our First Amendment demands no less.
Arthur Greif is an attorney with the Bangor firm Gilbert and Greif. He lives in Bar Harbor.