Newry selectman issues ultimatum
Newry Selectman Brooks Morton Monday described to the board what he saw as too little transparency in town government and too much government interference in the lives of Newry residents.
He then called for a citizen commission to study the possible creation of a town charter to guide town business in the future.
A town charter may outline duties and responsibilities of town officials, as well as procedures for town business. By state law selectmen or townspeople (by petition) can initiate a process to establish a commission to study and draw up such a document, to be voted on by residents.
Morton said the board needed to set up a charter commission on its own or it would be forced to do so by a petition.
“This is basically an ultimatum,” Morton said.
Last week he sent selectboard Chairman Wendy Hanscom, Selectman Gary Wight and Town Administrator Loretta Powers an e-mail outlining his concerns about the current conduct of town business, listing government interference, a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability as the key issues. (See below story for e-mail.)
On Monday he went into more detail.
For example, said Morton, too many decisions made by the board are by consensus, rather than a formal vote.
“Under a consensus system, any dissent is neverrecorded,” he said. “A consensus is not necessarily unanimous.”
Hanscom said much of the board’s business involves discussion and doesn’t require a vote, and voting on everything could be cumbersome. But, she said, a selectman can make a motion at any time.
Morton made a motion to conduct business under Robert’s Rules of Order, which, he noted, the town’s Planning Board uses.
But the vote was a tie with Wight abstaining because he said he was not familiar enough with the issue to decide.
Hanscom, who also moderates town meetings in other towns, said, “It makes it difficult to get too technical with three people.”
She said she wasn’t sure how to proceed with the tie vote, saying she would have to look up the procedure, “since we weren’t really operating that way anyway.”
“This is my point,” said Morton.
“Well, this is my point,” said Hanscom. “It wasn’t this complicated before. We could have said, well, let’s reconsider.”
They eventually voted to table it until Wight could become more familiar with the process.
Morton went on to say that Newry residents were first closed out of the democratic process in 1999, when, he said, 65 people asked for a public hearing on a Route 26 Scenic Byway management plan proposal and were denied by selectmen. “The people were denied and it’s been a slope down ever since,” he said.
Checks and balances
Morton also said Powers’ position has been given too much leeway in decision-making and responsibilities.
Several people in the audience of nine asked about checks and balances in financial matters.
Powers and her predecessor, Sylvia Gray, told them the town books are reviewed by a professional auditor annually, as required by law.
Gray also said when she held the position Morton had come into the office “and thought I was hiding this and that. Nothing was ever hidden in the town office.”
Gray added that Newry went to a town administrator form of government 20 years ago because running a town was becoming more complex. She said the selectmen serve as an executive board, while Powers carries out the day-to-day business.
“I think you need to recognize where your job stops, and someone else’s begins,” she told Morton.
Morton replied that a charter “would put me in my place.”
Morton also said Newry’s town report does not provide enough detail about town spending.
He said that last month’s town meeting was the first occasion in 20 years that people knew the salaries of town employees, after a citizen requested the information.
“That upset a lot of people,” said Morton.
Resident Bob Lowell said he had looked back at old town reports and they contained more detail than the newer ones.
Powers said people wanting to know such information are welcome to come to the town office and ask.
But, said Morton, they shouldn’t have to.
Resident Fred Burk added that he would not want to have to do that, and in the past he had simply consulted the town report.
Dave Berry agreed. The more information that can be provided, he said, the fewer questions town officials would get.
Hanscom agreed. “I think we hear that,” she said.
Resident Roger Wheeler described his perspective. “We may notice little things like the town report that doesn’t report what it previously reported, or some little thing that affects us personally, and until somebody – and usually it’s an elected official, like a Brooksy, or somebody - comes forward with a cumulative agenda saying what about this and what about that, and then talks to some citizens. So we aren’t here throwing stones and accusing anybody. It’s an informational thing. Brooksy’s brought it to our attention what he sees as some shortcomings in our government and we’re here, at least I am, saying, ‘What’s going on?’ It’s not an accusation, it’s not finger-pointing. Let’s see what people have to say.”
Gray pressed Morton on whether he was issuing an ultimatum.
He said he was. “I will use whatever means I need to, either as a selectman - I would vote to be proactive and start [the commission process]. If the selectmen don’t want to do it, I’m prepared to go door to door like I’ve done many times before and push the issue, because it needs to be brought to the front.”
Morton also said he wasn’t comfortable building budgets, and signing warrants at each meeting to pay bills, when the information was presented only by general categories.
And he questioned a statement made in the current town audit that he said seemed to imply information on transactions between town funds was missing.
He re-iterated that his comments were not personal.
“It feels it, just to be honest with you, because it’s my job and nobody has ever asked for anything different than what they’ve got,” said Powers.
She also said she provides details on the warrants and other documents anytime the board wants them.
As for government interference, Morton gave the example of an increasing number of town ordinances that he said are restricting landowner rights. The limitations, he said, should be placed on the government.
“What’s good for the people is good for the government,” said Morton. “It’s not that the government is doing anything wrong. It’s the people holding the government accountable.”
Morton also noted Newry voters’ rejection last year of participating in a new state review of the Scenic Byways management plan.
Hanscom reminded Morton that the board had voted against participation early in the Byways process, only to join it again at Morton’s urging.
He said that was because he learned the process was going to go forward anyway without Newry, and he wanted the town to have a say.
Morton said what is happening at a local level is similar to developments at the national level.
“Our Constitution is under attack,” he said, by people looking to “tweak the Constitution to rob people of their rights.”
Some at the meeting wondered if the concerns in Newry could be addressed without entering a formal Charter Commission process, which Morton estimated could take up to a year.
Hanscom said in typical cases Maine towns adopt them so they can elect a mayor, change an elections process or establish a means to recall selectmen.
She suggested the board instead continue to identify specific areas they could address without going the commission route, at least for now.
Morton said he still favored the charter process as the means to improve procedures, even though the recommendation at the end might be against actually adopting one. But he agreed to continue with board work sessions on the issue for now.
The board also made changes to the process of setting the agenda for board meetings. They agreed to Morton’s request that more material on agenda items be sent by e-mail before the meeting, to allow time for review. He also asked that meetings start with a prayer and the flag salute. Hanscom said some people might object to a prayer, but she saw no reason not to include the salute.
In other business Monday the board voted against supporting a resolution submitted by Cathy Newell opposing parts of Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal, including revenue sharing and general assistance funds to towns. Powers said Newry would not be affected much because the town receives little revenue and no general assistance.
They also voted to table an item requested by Fire Chief Bruce Pierce regarding pay for a firefighter enrolled in a training course.
The board agreed several months ago to pay such firefighters after Pierce brought the issue to them. Hanscom said he was again looking for their input regarding the issue.
But Morton said the board would be micromanaging the NFD by getting involved, and Pierce had the authority to make a decision. The board meets next April 16 at 7 a.m.
The last item on our next agenda was listed as “Brooks Suggestions.” Let me be clear so you know firsthand my intentions are not simple suggestions. It is action we must take with only two options. Hold that thought and I will summarize here and explain in more detail when we meet April 1.
It has been a year since I began my service as a fellow Selectman in our beloved Town of Newry. It is a job I did not really want. Nevertheless I answered the call when elected by the People. I took an oath to uphold the duties of this office and the Constitution of this State So Help Me God! I do not take oaths lightly, so I strive to uphold that promise by studying the Maine Constitution and Maine Statutes as it pertains to Municipal law. This day I have more questions than answers. My biggest question is how is the Town Business being conducted?
Did you wonder on the night of the special Town Meeting in 2011 when “We The People” packed the house to defeat the Conservation Commission, what were the people saying?
What was the message at Town Meeting 2012 when “We the People” elected a new selectman?
Why did “We the People” get motivated to defeat the Scenic Byway effort that was brought before the town?
Why was there so much of a “buzz” during and after Town Meeting this year? Do you think that, “We the People” would soon get over it? If we take no action do you think the concerns will go away?
These are the questions I have wrestled with because I know that issues suppressed and not understood do not go away.
I will not make the mistake in doubting the intelligence of “We the People.” As an elected official I wish not be found guilty of dereliction of duty.
Here is what I see as underlying issues.
(1) To Much Government interference,
(2) Lack of Transparency and
(3) a lack of Accountability has led to a general loss of confidence and trust in our local government.
In the past 30 years we have been mandated to inventory, through comprehensive planning, every acre of the peoples’ land, to regulate through ordinance every land use and control through code enforcement every action a landowner does to insure compliance.
While “We the People” were directed and regulated into compliance.”We the Government” became more secretive and less accountable.
We have grown as a town and transitioned into the situation that we find ourselves in today. A town managed by non-elected officials trained and guided by non-government organizations.
It’s time to inventory and control our Local Government’s Mode of Operation.
I call on the selectmen to establish a Town Charter Commission.
A charter is necessary to establish sound municipal government. It also would provide elected municipal officers with needed guidance on how town business is conducted.
A charter organizes a lot of things into one document and makes (town business) more transparent.
Charters are extremely important to municipalities. It allows the town to establish its own procedures and guidelines rather than, in some cases, having to follow state law. Or, in our case, fly by the seat of our pants with no bylaws or procedures.
A charter could also allow the town to adopt a different form of government – such as a town Manager or board of selectmen consisting of more than three individuals.
It gives the town opportunity to establish its own government in a way it wouldn’t otherwise be allowed if you didn’t have a charter,”
The way to get it started is spelled out for us in Maine Law.
Chapter 2102 sec. 1. would be the wise route to take. It allows the selectmen by order to provide for the establishment of a Charter Commission. If we choose not to deal with this issue then we will be forced to deal with 2102 sec. 2 which gives the people the right to petition if they so choose.
I hope that I have conveyed clearly enough that I am not making a mere suggestion. As I see it we have two options. Either we take the lead and start this conversation as Elected Officials or be forced to address it by the will of “We the People.”