By Mike Gurtler
The Bar Harbor Charter Commission is putting the results of 14 months of work, including multiple public hearings, before the voters this November. There are nine separate articles. Six of them (Articles 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10) were supported unanimously by both the Charter Commission and the Town Council; the others had either one or two dissenting votes.
Despite this strong support, the Warrant Committee rejected four of the nine articles, including one that was supported unanimously by the commission and the council. Some of the articles the Warrant Committee opposed had to do with the size and function of the Warrant Committee itself. The majority of the Charter Commission and the council supported the changes in an effort to create a more efficient process. Opponents said the existing process puts “more eyes” on town business and allows for greater diversity in governing.
What it also creates is a greater workload for town staff. It’s not that staff should have a light workload. Our employees work hard on our behalf year–round, day in and day out. According to estimates of the summer population, Bar Harbor is one of Maine’s 10 largest municipalities in the tourist season. The needs of our summer visitors place unusual demand on our town employees.
Summer visitors expect safe streets and sidewalks that are well-lit in the evening. They want our parks to be clean and our restrooms sanitary. They need to be fed, entertained and lodged in facilities that are inspected and monitored for health and safety. They want activity during the day, socializing in the evening and peace and quiet at night.
This is a vast undertaking for a small town. When the annual budget process takes eight months of the year, there is little time left for everything else: affordable housing, public education, local recreational opportunities, clean water, waste disposal and climate change mitigation.
At one time, the town took a line item budget to Town Meeting and all citizens present could weigh in on each and every expenditure. It was an inclusive approach with two inherent problems. Only a small number of voters attended most Town Meetings and arguments went on for hours over very small expenditures. This was deemed to be an inefficient approach to town governance. We streamlined.
The Charter Commission has proposed reducing the size of the Warrant Committee from 22 to 15 members and making its election process the same as other elected town bodies, increasing transparency and the opportunity to run for a seat. (See the town website for a description and rationale for all changes proposed.) The Warrant Committee’s desire to maintain the status quo when it comes to their own design and function is contrary to the aim of the Charter Commission to create a more efficient process.
Efficiency is not the enemy of democracy. Efficiency strives to give the best value for the taxpayer dollar while preserving citizen involvement in a meaningful way.
When three separate town bodies consider a proposal and cannot agree on the merits, what is a voter to do? Putting “more eyes” on the process does not mean greater democracy. It means a slow and cumbersome process that costs taxpayers money. Ultimately, every single voter has the right to show up and vote on these questions. We urge you to consider the strong consensus votes of the Charter Commission and Town Council and support the changes to our town charter.
For the Charter Commission Majority:
Peter St. Germain