It’s too bad that a person’s death is so often the most significant reminder to celebrate their life, but it may be inescapable. People are dead for a lot longer than they are alive and this cannot be changed, but how they are remembered and what they will be remembered for is indeed within the control of the living. I’ve dealt with a heavy dose of loss in my own family, so forgive me if my words are too direct. I don’t believe that the loved ones who leave us are really dead, but I don’t know how else to say it at this point. Some leave an archive of memoirs and speeches as part their life’s work, and that makes the job a little easier, but the majority leave footprints and life lessons that will go largely undocumented without the effort of those they leave behind. The types of qualities and contributions that go viral on social media or the ones that draw newspaper headlines are not always the most important attributes of a community member, and sometimes, what is special about a person can only be observed over time and from a certain perspective.

Serving on the Camden Select Board has given me one such perspective and a second window into the lives and character of many community members.

At times it is disappointing to see how people behave when faced with community issues that place their values at odds with perceived personal interests. I know plenty of “progressives” who march for equal rights and social justice at the national level but will threaten legal action over the suggestion of affordable housing in their own neighborhood. Most of the time people can be forgiven for missing the connection between their own political philosophies at the national or global scale and the decisions being made locally. Free and guaranteed parking on publicly owned land, for example, is connected to the larger issues of government subsidies and even climate change, but it’s not always obvious. The longer you stick around, the more you realize that the majority of decisions are more about good quality planning and budgeting than political ideology.

One pattern does emerge rather clearly, though, and it has nothing to do with which party you voted for in the last election. Some people tend to give input that is community minded while most only have time to get involved if an issue touches them personally. There is nothing wrong with speaking up about the way a community decision will impact oneself personally. We need that, and often there is an overlap between individual and community needs. Still, being in a position of receiving a lot of both solicited and unsolicited comments, opinions, and grievances, I’ve fostered a true fondness and admiration for those who make a habit of participating in local democracy on a regular basis with no particular vested interest. On Christmas Eve, Camden lost a fine example of one such person who deserves to be remembered both for the quality and diversity of his contributions to the town and the way he went about it.

I’ve known Mark Haskell just about all my life. I remember stopping by his studio on Pearl Street as a kid on Halloween and getting photos taken of our costumes. He also took school and event photos, covered weddings, funerals, fundraisers, wildlife, winter storms, and neighborhood happenings. He was always cheery and good natured but also serious about getting it right and often donated his time to causes he believed in. If you got him talking, he wasn’t a bit shy about sharing his observations about everything from town government to gun rights to the yellow bags from the transfer station. Like anyone, he had a few passion points, but they were always with the community interest in mind, and they sometimes surprised me.

A long-time member of the town Parks and Recreation committee, among many others, he had a particular interest in everyone paying their fair share. He had observed the increasing demand for ball field time at the Snow Bowl and was well aware of the ongoing maintenance costs of this and other town parks. He did not feel that adult intramural teams from outside of Camden should have the luxury of reserving the fields at no cost. His argument was rational and well informed. He politely nudged for years, spoke up in budget committee meetings, secured the support of others, and created a recommended fee schedule that everyone agreed on. One year, he even elevated the issue by speaking during the public comment period of a Select Board meeting and submitting a letter explaining why he was withholding part of his tax payment to the town in protest.

Civil disobedience is a tool that Mark wasn’t afraid to use and I admired him for it. He did it without malice and for the sole purpose of what he believed to be in the best interest of all. As someone who delighted for years in challenging the “no salvaging” rule at the transfer station, hoping that a citation or formal reprimand might be just the thing to elevate the issue of wasted resources, I can relate. The difference between Mark and me is that he actually managed to get his case about personal watercraft in front of the Maine Supreme Court, whereas my waste-not-want-not crusade mostly met with a few disgruntled emails and the promise of incremental change.

Mark attended most of our Select Board meetings and often shared little pearls of perspective from the past and present. Sometimes, he would stick around after the meeting when the Conference Room was still open, and people can chat casually. More than once, Bob Falciani, Mark Haskell, and I would find ourselves the last ones to leave the room after everyone else had long grown tired of transfer station or street maintenance banter. Mark had been paying attention for long enough that it was enjoyable to talk with him about most topics, even when we disagreed. He was uniquely interested in the facts and was willing to change his mind based on new information if it could be confirmed. He didn’t attach a lot of ego to his positions, and he could strongly disagree with a person on one topic while simultaneously supporting them on a different one: the complete opposite of a single issue voter.

On one hand, you might browse through Mark’s Facebook profile and see him as an anti-government extremist. You might see his occasional posts about jet skis and the NRA and think you could put him in a box, but you would be wrong to do it. Mark was better informed about local issues than most Camden residents. He understood the way taxpayer resources are spent in Camden. He could see the bigger picture and was a strong defender of public spaces, the environment, and civil discourse. There are not many people left with the temperament and institutional memory of Mark Haskell and I will truly miss him.

There’s one area in particular where Mark deserves some vindication and I’m sorry that I didn’t write this sooner, for his sake. One of the things we talked about from time to time was boating safety and the sorry state of the laws surrounding the issue in Maine. I’m sure I will write more about the details in the future, but a brief overview of Mark’s position will have to suffice for now.

You may have heard about the man who famously spent $20,000 of his own money challenging the constitutionality of banning jet skis from state-owned water bodies. You may have jumped on the bandwagon, as many did, of equating his jet ski activism with recklessness, but this could not be further from the truth. Mark’s position was that the way you operate a boat in public spaces, not the style or size of the boat, should be the guiding principle behind the laws.

After the town of Liberty passed an ordinance banning personal watercraft from Lake St. George, where Mark had a camp, he went out and bought a new jet ski. Purposefully (and responsibly, he would add), he paraded it up and down the lake at a time sure to attract attention, and it did. It was all part of his plan to invite a citation that could be challenged in court.

The residents of the state of Maine own the lakes and ponds, but towns have been granted limited rights to regulate certain activities and vessels that pose an elevated risk to public safety. Mark and his lawyer argued that a personal watercraft ban unfairly singles out a boat based on its size and not the way it is operated. If people wanted to protect loons and swimmers and kayakers, Mark argued, they needed to target the dangerous and detrimental behaviors that are becoming more and more common by all types of boat operators. Mark felt strongly enough about personal freedom, public access, and public safety that he responsibly challenged the law as a method of bringing the issue to public attention. Mark wanted to enjoy the lake on a small boat with no outboard motor, not a large one.

A judge vacated the citation based on the idea that the ban wasn’t reasonable and that Mark’s constitutional right to enjoy the lake had been unfairly violated. The State argued that personal watercraft are more dangerous than other watercraft because they can be operated in shallower water and are more maneuverable than larger vessels, but Mark and his attorneys successfully challenged this assumption. On to the Maine Supreme Court it went and ultimately the State prevailed in the argument that Maine towns can in fact ban jet skis based on safety concerns. At the time, I was happy with the result, but I now agree with Mark that the larger issue of boater safety was ignored by allowing a hyper-focus on jet skis and not the actions of those who operate them.

Some of those who know me might imagine I’d be less sympathetic to Mark and his battle for jet ski equity. I too have seen dangerous and annoying behavior from jet skis and I’m no fan of turning our public spaces over to the biggest and the fastest. As some of you will know, I’m still grappling with the death of my sister, who was killed while swimming on Damariscotta Lake in 2018. A Massachusetts man was driving a boat just after sunset while Kristen and her friend were out for a swim. She was killed by the propeller of an outboard motor and the State ultimately was not sure if they could prove that the actions of the boater were sufficiently negligent to constitute manslaughter. Nothing in Maine requires any kind of license or safety certification to operate a power boat. No insurance, no license, and no prohibition on nighttime driving. There have been countless accidents caused by negligent boaters going too fast and unable to see what was in their path. The same can be said for snowmobiles and their operators on frozen lakes, and Mark pointed out that these vehicles bear a striking resemblance to the type of personal watercraft he was prohibited from using.

Personal watercraft with jet propulsion systems like Mark’s Seadoo, on the other hand, are prohibited from being out on the water at night even in places where they have not been banned, but why would a jet ski at headway speed be any more dangerous than a powerboat? A bigger boat is only safer for the person driving it, and as a swimmer, I’m certain that my sister and any wildlife on the lake would have been a lot safer with Mark Haskell and his jet ski than a Massachusetts vacationer with his outboard motor. The eagerness to ban jet skis seems to be motivated more by a general concern for too many boats and general reckless behavior than an examination of the facts.

This article isn’t really meant to be an argument for opening the jet ski flood gates. I won’t be advocating for that any time soon, but I do think he started a conversation that isn’t over. I will miss Mark and the types of conversations he started, and I’ll especially miss the way he could point out the insanity of certain things without losing his sense of humor or giving up on listening to other viewpoints.

All photos posted publicly on Mark’s Facebook page. He had always given me permission to use any of them.

 

 

 

Here’s one from my personal collection taken of Kristen and me at his studio on Pearl Street.

 

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board member. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

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