Discouraging civic engagement in town affairs

By Paul Ackerman | Jul 12, 2018

Civic engagement must be based on the belief that one’s efforts are useful to the community at large and are not going to be summarily sabotaged by an authoritarian bureaucrat. When residents raise serious questions in a public hearing that the committee (or board) cannot, or will not, answer in a sensible manner, then the usual recourse is to consult the Town Office or town manager for advice as to “what’s next, what can we do now?” That is the foundation of grassroots civic engagement.

As with many Maine towns, here in St. George it has been obvious that there has always been a small cadre of people who’ve run the town. Most have been well intentioned, and many these days are volunteers to boards or committees who give of their time to push forward their own agendas to direct the town’s future. I’d venture to say that the vast majority of voters in St. George have little or no idea of what these committees do, what their area of effect on the town is, or when a vote to authorize spending taxpayer money is required.

Some years ago, when town meeting votes were done by raised hands counted on the spot, there was vigorous debate over spending by the town. That has been supplanted by paper ballot voting at the Town Office before a formal town meeting is held, with little direct communication to residents about the issues to be voted on. Since then, the resulting voter turnout has been very low.

This applies to the May 14 St. George vote on the “Cold Storage Project Bond Funding”. During the public hearing, prior to the pre-town meeting vote, many concerned residents asked very reasonable questions of the Harbor Committee presenters, the consulting engineers, and the town manager. By a good margin, the people asking questions were very skeptical of the vagueness of the proposal and especially the push to vote when the turnout was expected to be minuscule compared to November’s election voting.

The general response was "Trust us, we know what we are doing, and we are doing it for the town." The sentiment of the public at this hearing was that many questions were unanswered and more information needed to be provided between then and November to allow voters to make better informed decisions. The Select Board ignored this and promptly voted to place the bond measure on the ballot May 14.

A few weeks later, the May 14 vote results were a demonstration of this practice; total voter turnout was only 372, less than 20 percent of the registered voters in St. George. Voters in favor of the bond authorization? 188. Opposed? 184.

One concerned resident, Nicholas Lapham, queried the town manager about the process of petitioning the Select Board to reconsider the vote and the process of putting such spending issues in low-turnout contexts. Being advised to follow the Maine Municipal Association guidelines for petitions, he did so, and attended the next Select Board meeting hoping to discuss the process and the overall issue of the petitions he had started circulating.

Prior to the beginning of the meeting, Mr. Latham was approached by Select Board Chair Richard Bates, who insisted that Lapham not be allowed to discuss any of this because he was not on the agenda for the meeting. “OK, put me on the agenda for the next meeting," Lapham responded. This was agreed to and Mr. Lapham received assurances that the matter would be discussed then.

Next month, at the beginning of the meeting’s agenda, Chairman Bates asked Mr. Lapham, “The world tells me that you have a petition to present to us; have you?” Believing this to be the first step in opening the discussion of the issue, Mr. Lapham responded, “Yes, would this be the time to present it?”

“Yes, it would.” The 220 signatures collected were then presented with the petitions, requesting two warrants be issued by the Select Board. The first warrant would defer any further expenditure on the project pending a revote in November. The second, a separate warrant, called for a vote in November to amend the town charter so that future bond issues would be put before voters in November of even- numbered years to ensure a minimum of 50 percent voter turnout on such bonds.

Chairman Bates then accepted the petitions and firmly stated that there would be no further discussion of this issue during the meeting, requesting a motion from the board to remove it from the agenda.

Civic engagement St. George Select Board-style: we tell you to get on the agenda, then once you are on it, ask you for your petition, then announce you are no longer on the agenda because you have handed in your petition.

The official letter denying the petition states “The Select Board chooses to reject the June 25 citizens petition because municipal officers need not permit the “ping-ponging” of warrant articles…”

"Chooses" is a significant word choice, implying consideration and perhaps even discussion. Too bad the executive session wasn’t open to the public. So much for civic engagement.

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