CAMDEN — Speaking as a concerned citizen, John French told Select Board members it is time to think about bringing back town committees.

In February, some of town government’s most active committees were put on pause by the Select Board.

“A lot of people have been asking me when you guys are going to bring the committees back,” French said, at the start of the Sept. 21 Select Board meeting.

“Committees do a lot of good work for the town,” and the community should be proud to have them, he said. “It’s time to think about it. It’s time to bring it forward.”

French is a former Select Board Chair who served seven terms, and in 2017 decided not to seek reelection. For the past 2 and 1/2 years, he has served on the Charter Commission.

Steve Gold talked about the Harbor Committee. He is disappointed the committee that would propose solutions to the problem of overcrowding on the dinghy dock, due to kayaks tied up there, “hasn’t been allowed to meet for over a year.”

At a recent meeting, board member Marc Ratner recently requested the board plan on holding a discussion on reactivating committees at an upcoming meeting. He is getting a lot of questions and comments about this, both by email and in person. “It’s been a long break,” he said. “The committee people have brought some great things to the town.”

At that same meeting, Molly Mulhern talked about the importance of the Community and Economic Development Advisory Committee. She expressed interest in joining the committee and has been told it is not meeting.

On Sept. 21, Board Vice Chair Alison McKellar rebutted the notion that the Select Board is not letting committees meet, and that “all committees have been stopped.” A lot of committees are meeting, she said. She talked about problems of staffing required committees and the backlog of good work produced by committees and approved by the public, but not implemented.

McKellar agrees the Harbor Committee needs to start meeting again, in a way that the Select Board can keep up with and understand the committee’s work.

Board Chair Bob Falciani promised the board would be “addressing this very soon, probably with some priorities and an approach that is going to work for all parties — board, town staff, as well as individuals.” The board encourages people to apply to various committees, including the Conservation Commission, which it needs to reinstate, he said.

Nancy Caudle-Johnson, also a Charter Commission member, was not able to attend the Sept. 21 meeting. Appointments to the Conservation Commission are required annually by the Town Charter, she said Sept. 22.

She spoke about the importance of the Conservation Commission. It has existed since the 1970s and is responsible for protecting the environment of the town and surveying town-owned property.

She cited some past achievements of the Conservation Commission. It successfully protected the Beacon Street Right of Way overlooking Curtis Island Lighthouse against encroachment from a neighbor and put up a sign up so people would use it.

It worked on adding land and signage to the Bog, a natural area behind Park St. It assessed the tree removal plan for the Snow Bowl redevelopment and “testified that the way it was planned it could make a mess of Hosmer Pond.”  The Commission was not listened to, and the environmental damage occurred, she said.

Why were committees paused?

The Select Board paused committee meetings as a way of reducing demands on town staff to livestream  and record remote meetings, which were necessary due to the pandemic. Caler had reported that the demands for all the required town boards and from the committees were overwhelming limited staff.

In February, committees put on pause were Harbor, Energy and Sustainability, Design Team and Parks and Recreation. These committees held Zoom meetings on a regular basis, which were livestreamed via YouTube. Other committees paused, included those which met less frequently, like the Opera House Committee, or were not holding meetings due to the pandemic, such as Historic Resources. The Community and Economic Advisory Committee also stopped meeting.

Since February, meetings were limited to the Select Board, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Charter Commission, Camden-Rockport Pathways and Mid-Coast Waste Corp. Board, Mid-Coast Internet Coalition, and Budget, which meets for a limited duration. Recently the Cemetery Association has begun meeting again. Members of some of these committees and boards pitch in to make sure meetings are recorded and livestreamed.

The board has had many discussions about how to handle committees during the past few years.

Caler has repeatedly raised concerns that committees generate work for her office and town staff, independent of the Select Board, to which she reports. She has explained that something as beneficial as a committee obtaining a grant adds responsibilities and tasks to her workload. She has asked Select Board members multiple times to clarify what they want her to work on. Board members have tried to align committee work with their stated priorities, and to keep track of what committees are doing.

What happened to the Conservation Commission?

Members of the Conservation Commission resigned in August 2019 due to a dispute with Caler about use of money in a Commission reserve fund to pay for a summer intern. The dispute was over the question of whether the Commission or town manager had decision-making authority over use of the funds.

The Conservation Commission is listed as a board that “shall be appointed by a majority vote of the members of the select board,” along with the planning board, zoning board of appeals and agent for overseers, according to the current Town Charter. The Charter is sometimes described as the town’s operating manual, or constitution.

In the revised Town Charter, to be voted on in November, the Conservation Commission is appointed “by an affirmative vote of three (3) members” of the Select Board.

Both current and revised versions of the Charter call for appointments of the Conservation Commission, Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and agent for overseers to be made annually at the Select Board’s organizing meeting, or soon after — and as vacancies occur.

The Conservation Commission is “responsible for overseeing town-owned natural resources,” and “also plays an important role in identifying private lands that should be protected or acquired because of their value to the natural environment,” according to the town’s Comprehensive Plan.

The recent Conservation Commission was focused on improving water quality in Camden Harbor and protecting the town’s ash trees from the emerald ash borer, and was known as a very active group.

It initiated a proposal to ban single-use plastic bags and polystyrene containers in Camden, approved by voters in 2018. It initiated a proposed phase-out of unencapsulated polystyrene floatation for floats and docks to protect water quality and marine life, approved by voters in 2017. Both proposals were approved by an overwhelming majority of voters.

The Commission ran an education campaign to prevent food, trash and chemicals from being dumped into storm drains, which flow into the harbor. An interactive map of all of the ash trees on public land in the downtown area, along with a plan to protect the trees from destruction by the Emerald Ash Borer, was created for the town by one of the Commission’s paid interns. Another paid intern prepared a comprehensive study geared towards improving the use of boat waste pump out facilities at the harbor.