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The Charter Issue
Times Record Op-Ed

Republished with permission of the Times Record
Many reasons to oppose town charter for Harpswell
We can accomplish any charter benefits by adopting ordinances and other changes
By Gordon L. Weil, Times Record Contributor

Harpswell will vote at town meeting March 12 on a charter commission. I oppose a Harpswell charter, so I see no point in having a commission and will vote against it.

1. If it isn't broken, don't fix it.

The town meeting and referendums get high turnouts, open debate and democratically determined results. Harpswell handled the LNG issue and resolved it using our current system. Compared to other towns, the municipal budget is low. In short, Harpswell government works well.

2. Shouldn't we look at restructuring town government even if we end up doing nothing?

A charter commission independent of the rest of town government would impose unnecessary cost, distraction and conflict on Harpswell. We have used a governance committee in the past and it worked well. If needed, we could organize another such committee.

3. Most towns larger than Harpswell have charters. Why not Harpswell?

Maine law requires that any municipality that wants to have a town council (representative democracy) instead of town meeting (direct democracy) must have a charter. About 75 of the 492 municipalities in Maine have charters, and all but about a dozen have councils, not town meetings. The dozen or so with town meetings have limited the role of the town meeting to the budget alone and/or have persons with manager-type responsibilities.

4. Harpswell does not want to drop the town meeting and has rejected a town manager form of government. Why would it want to be the only municipality in Maine to keep the town meeting, have no manager-type administrator but have a charter?

The main new ideas of the charter supporters seem to be that we should look at the "distribution of powers" and improved citizen access.

I believe that these issues arise because of the LNG debate. Some LNG opponents said that the selectmen had too much power, especially in deciding to put the LNG matter to a town meeting vote. The way to change what selectmen do is to change the selectmen at election time, not hog-tie the town with a charter.

Citizen access mostly is concerned with the issue of what townspeople may discuss at selectmen's meetings. During the LNG debate, selectmen's meeting became mini-town meetings, threatening to paralyze the normal conduct of business. Harpswell has many opportunities for public comment.

5. So, is this really a rerun of the LNG controversy?

No. Some charter commission supporters did not oppose LNG. But I see it as an outgrowth of the controversy, because of discontent, mainly among some LNG opponents, with the way that matter was handled.

Like LNG, the charter issue will undoubtedly divide the town on a matter which it already defeated in an advisory referendum in June 2003. We should allow for more healing and for municipal government to settle down to normal, before subjecting it to this new stress. A year of work by a charter commission can only add to the stress.

6. Isn't it time for Harpswell to have home rule? Having a charter is only one way of having home rule, and we can have as much as we want now. If we want to keep the town meeting - direct democracy - we can accomplish any of the benefits of a charter through the adoption of ordinances or by making other changes under state law.

7. Doesn't home rule through a charter mean the Legislature can't touch Harpswell?

No. The Maine Constitution says that a charter can cover "all matters, not prohibited by Constitution or general law, which are local and municipal in character." For example, taxes are exclusively a state matter under the Maine Constitution, and no charter can change that.

8. How does a charter compare with other ways of changing town government?

If Harpswell decides to have a charter commission, its members would be independent of town government and would come up with a charter dealing with all aspects of Harpswell government. The voters will have to take it or leave it as a single package.

The alternative is to continue to consider changes as the need arises or popular sentiment requires. Then, each issue can be voted upon independently so the town meeting is not forced into taking a package deal. What's more, changing a charter is usually more difficult than changing ordinances, so the town would unnecessarily give up flexibility in dealing with government issues.

9. Couldn't a charter be a useful guide to town government for newcomers to Harpswell?

We don't need a charter simply to provide information on town government to a relatively small number of new people. But an information publication on how Harpswell is governed would be a good idea, and I will propose we prepare one.

10. Besides, Harpswell already has a charter. It's just not written.

The Town of Harpswell was created when Maine was part of the British Kingdom. Great Britain has never had a written constitution. It functions according to a series of decisions made over the years and customs having broad consent. So does Harpswell. We would sacrifice a precious part of our history unnecessarily in an effort to develop a charter to deal with some people's current concerns.

If we reject the charter commission, we can continue to strengthen the traditions and values that have served well during the 247 years that Harpswell has existed and that make our town special.

Gordon Weil is a selectman in the town of Harpswell.



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Last edited on 01/07/2010