Camden’s Charter Commission will hold its second public hearing Wednesday, Aug. 18 for citizen comments and questions on proposed changes to the Town Charter. These changes could create term limits and an absence policy for Select Board members, a smaller budget committee of nine members and voting on the municipal budget by paper ballot.

The meeting takes place at 5:45 p.m. in the French Conference Room and is open to the public.  It also will be streamed live on the town of Camden’s YouTube channel.

Commission members are recommending some of the proposed changes, while presenting other changes for discussion.

Members recommend keeping the current town meeting/Select Board/town manager form of government and approving the municipal budget at town meeting. For discussion, the Commission has outlined the pros and cons of a town council/town meeting/town manager form of government, and voting on the municipal budget by paper ballot, but does not recommend either of these changes.

Not all of the Commission members agree on a proposal that revises a section of the Charter on forfeiture of office for Select Board members.  The revision adds the occurrence of three unexcused absences from board meetings in a six-month period as a reason for forfeiture.

Commission Chair Deb Dodge brought a new revision of the forfeiture proposal to an Aug. 5 meeting, explaining the revision seeks to address objections voiced at the group’s first public hearing July 21.

Dodge explained that the change would require a Select Board member to communicate the absence and reason for it in writing to the board chair, who would decide if the absence was excused or not. The prior version required a board discussion and vote on whether an absence is excused.

Commission Vice Chair Lowrie Sargent supports rules to require Select Board members to communicate absences and reasons for them in writing.

Commission member John French prefers absences be handled verbally by the Chair outside of a meeting. He said in his time on the Select Board — which spanned 21 years — there was only one attendance problem with a person on the Planning Board. Sargent said handling absences verbally could lead to different treatment for different Board members, and lack of documentation.

Sargent does not think it is unusual to require something in writing with a reason for an absence. He sees the Select Board as having a great responsibility to the town. “The voters put their faith and trust in the members of the Select Board  to do their work as best they can. They get paid to do their work,” he said.

Commission members also talked about their July 21 public hearing.

Dodge asked members for their overall impressions of how the July meeting went and suggestions for improvement.

Commission member Jim Heard suggested Select Board members who would like to say something “don’t go first, and don’t dominate the conversation. It is unfortunate that that happened,” he said. Select Board Vice Chair Alison McKellar and Board member Marc Ratner spoke at the hearing.

Sargent suggested Dodge keep the conversations focused by reminding people to keep their comments brief. He said 10 minutes, and possibly even five minutes, is excessive. He suggested if an opinion is expressed, other speakers not repeat what has been already been said.

Dodge suggested it would be helpful to make public hearing guidelines clear to set the stage at the next meeting.

French talked about the difficulty with inviting people to speak, then limiting speakers to new information. “You want to allow people to speak even though they may repeat what someone else said. If you don’t allow people to say what they want to say “they’re going think no one cares what they have to say,” he said.

The hearings are about “bringing the public in and asking them to participate in this meeting. It’s not like we have 50 people with the same idea and a spokesperson,” French said.

Commission member Mark Haskell pointed out that they have been going over the Charter and revisions for the past year and a half. “Sometimes you have to let people speak to get out what they are asking,” he said. “It may be repetitious to us, but it’s totally new to them.”

Sargent added that the Commission’s responsibility is to present the Charter as it has been developed so far and explain things that might be confusing or that people don’t understand. He said Commission members need to listen and not to make speeches.

“We do need a conversation with all of us participating, to explain why were are where we are at,” French said. “There are proposed changes, and we need to let people know why we are thinking that way.”

Charter revision information on town website

The Commission has created two documents that can be used together to go through the proposed changes to the Charter. Both can be found on the town website, www.camdenmaine.gov.

One document contains highlights of proposed revisions. This is a quick guide to major and minor revisions and contains lists of pros and cons for major revisions. The other document is an annotated version of the entire Charter with the full text of proposed changes outlined in yellow.

Printed copies are also available for review at the town office and Camden Public Library.

The Town Charter is a 38-page document that serves as the operating manual for Camden’s municipal government. The current Charter was adopted more than 40 years ago. It is has been amended several times, but this is the first  comprehensive review.

Members of the Charter Commission were elected in June 2019, and began their work that September. The Commission’s progress was interrupted for fourth months at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Commission members are: Dodge, Sargent, Karen Grove, French, Nancy Caudle-Johnson, Haskell, Heard, Bob Oxton and Jean White.

The Charter Commission is seeking additional citizen feedback and input at the next public hearing, before they finalize the revisions for approval at a town vote.

Comments and questions can also be submitted by email to Charter@camdenmaine.gov.