By Charles Sidman
This opinion is written to address what the writer considers the single most ill-advised action of the Bar Harbor Town Council in personal memory. At its last (Nov. 17) meeting, the council unanimously changed the requirement for voting on town boards, committees and commissions (in Municipal Code 31-136) from the recent Citizen Initiative’s clear and intended standard of voter registration to several ill-defined criteria of “residency.“ This action illustrates the well-known perils of legislating for a particular, even ostensibly sympathetic, case, and in so doing creating multiple unintended and undesirable consequences generally.
The revised code eliminates and replaces the clear, readily ascertainable, arguably proper and voter intended requirement of “voter registration” and substitutes ill-defined town “residency” plus “no other residences” and “physically present” as new criteria for voting on non-elected town bodies. This language inadvisably sets no age criteria (specifically to allow minors of any age to vote on these town bodies even though having distinct legal treatment as juveniles, and unable to make enforceable contracts, vote in actual elections, etc.) Further, it does not define how long or recently qualifying “residency” must be exercised or how it should be demonstrated, or how specifically the requirement for “have no other residence” should be assessed. Individuals serve on many government bodies as staffers, assistants, clerks, etc., so the lack of direct voting privileges per se does not preclude participation, contribution or recognition.
More significantly, its plain language (despite what councilors individually or collectively may have thought they meant or intended) clearly excludes many long–term and unarguable Bar Harbor citizens who happen to have an “other residence” in the form of a summer camp on Long Pond in Mount Desert or elsewhere in Maine, ski condo at Sugarloaf or Sunday River, winter getaway in the South, etc. Such disenfranchisement from the rights of citizenship on the basis of possessions or lifestyle harks back to poll taxes and other notorious methods of voter exclusion and cannot be tolerated or defended. Especially regrettable is the fact that the simple insertion of an “or” plus a comma between the previous “registered to vote” and new criteria could have prevented such a poorly thought out and likely unintended participatory exclusion of many Bar Harbor citizens. This language can and should be amended immediately.
As significantly (and perhaps intended by some), this action of the Town Council directly nullifies and reverses the intent, word and mandate of last year’s overwhelmingly passed (by more than 2:1) Citizen Initiative. That initiative unambiguously stated that voting members of town boards must be registered voters, and its reversal violates both the entire initiative process as well as the core meaning of citizenship unambiguously declared and claimed through voter registration. This Council action recalls previous eras in which politicos in smoke–filled back rooms handed out specially requested individual favors in defiance of regular democratic process and clear voter choice. If such is considered an acceptable new standard, efforts for the following Charter Amendments by further Citizen Initiatives are likely to be initiated.
As one, a previously discussed recall mechanism may be formulated, as a more timely control for egregiously unacceptable Town Councilor behavior than the regular three year election cycle. As another, language excluding enacted Citizen Initiatives from modification by Council may be put to voters (leaving such initiatives as only modifiable by the voters themselves.) Both of these could even be considered at special citizen-initiated town meetings that the law permits beyond the regular, Council–controlled, calendar. Even if such further initiatives are not to the liking of the institutionally self-protective Council, our councilors’ action this past month suggests a compelling need for discussing further modifications to our town‘s governance, that recently went clearly and undemocratically astray.
Charles Sidman resides in Bar Harbor.