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Camden town meeting format may change

Charter Commission plans workshop with Select Board
By Susan Mustapich | Apr 27, 2021

camden — Proposed revisions to the Town Charter could change the format of town meeting from an open meeting to a vote by secret ballot or a hybrid, combining an open meeting and the use of a ballot for voting on the budget and other items.

This is a topic the Charter Commission has researched that could result in a change to how municipal government operates. It is one of many proposed revisions the Commission will seek input on from members of the public and Select Board.

The commission is currently working to schedule a workshop with the Select Board to go over its recommendations.

It is also hoping to hold in-person or hybrid meetings to seek public input in June. Because State COVID-19 restrictions are changing at the end of May, about 85 people would be allowed to meet in person at the Camden Opera House.

After gathering public comment and more input from Select Board members, the commission could finalize its revisions for a November vote, though this schedule has not yet been agreed on, according to Commission Chairwoman Deb Dodge.

The Charter revision has focused on several areas, including updating the Charter to reflect how the town is governing today, improving the document's format and organization to make information easier to find and understand, making sure the Charter is in compliance with current Maine statutes that govern municipalities, and changes to some aspects of how municipal government operates.

The Charter Commission has been meeting for about 15 months, with an interruption of four months at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, it has sought recommendations from Town Manager Audra Caler, Select Board members, Finance Director Jodi Hanson and others. The commission has also worked closely with Town Attorney Bill Kelly, Dodge said.

One recommendation from Caler was to look at the Personnel Board, which has a long list of responsibilities in the Charter, Dodge explained. Many of these responsibilities are now covered by a Personnel Policy Manual, approved by the Personnel and Select Boards. To reflect current operations, revisions to the Charter include removing language now covered by the personnel manual. The Charter Commission is also making the recommendation to replace the Personnel Board with a committee, which is advisory to the Select Board.

The commission has revised the formatting of the Charter, which is in line with an action recently taken by the Select Board to standardize the formatting of town ordinances, Dodge said. The new format will make information in the Charter easier to locate, and is similar to what is used by eCode360, which the Select Board has approved to digitize and reformat its ordinances.

The commission is developing some recommendations that could make significant changes to the way Camden's municipal government operates. For these types of changes, the commission has developed options for the Select Board to comment on.

One significant change Dodge mentioned would revise language in the Charter that could allow town meetings to operate differently. This could mean using a paper ballot for all warrant articles, as was done in 2020 and will be done again this June, or a hybrid version, where a paper ballot is used for voting on the municipal budget. The Commission has researched a number of town charters recommended to them by Kelly and sees several models available to choose from. One example Dodge mentioned is Kennebunk, which has a town meeting form of government and has used a secret ballot for voting on their budget for a long time.

History

The current Charter was adopted more than 40 years ago, and has been amended several times, but not comprehensively revised.

In December 2018 voters came together at a special town meeting and approved a comprehensive Charter review and revision, in order to eliminate inconsistencies between local government and state law and practices, and to best reflect current times and methods of conducting the citizens' business.

In June 2019, several Charter Commission members were elected at the polls, including Mark Haskell and Nancy Caudle-Johnson, who are still members of the commission. Other members were elected as write-in candidates. Over time, some members have resigned, and others have been elected.

Current members include Dodge, Lowrie Sargent, who is vice chairman, John French, Karen Grove, Haskell, James Heard, Caudle-Johnson, Bob Oxton and Jean White.

Commission members began meeting in September 2019. They started their work by reading charters from other Maine towns and by going through Camden's 45-page Charter, article by article, according to meeting minutes.

Members organized in teams of two to make more progress on reviewing articles. By October 2019, the plan was to deliver a preliminary report to the Select Board in mid-March and a final report in mid-June.

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, nearly all meetings but the Select Board and Planning Board were suspended for several months. The Charter Commission did not resume meeting until July. Since that time, some meetings were held in the Opera House and others via Zoom videoconferencing.

By November 2020, Commission members had made significant progress on revisions.

In December 2020, seeking public input, and providing material to the public on proposed updates to the Charter, was discussed as an important step towards finalizing the revision for a public vote.

While current members support a November 2021 vote, the commission has an extension from the Select Board, due to the pandemic, to complete its work by March 2022.

For more information on the Charter Commission, see meeting minutes on the town website, camdenmaine.gov, and meetings recorded on the town of Camden YouTube channel.

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