Boards & Committees

(from Maine Townsman, March 2009)
By Douglas Rooks

Thousands of Mainers serve on municipal committees from the largest cities to the smallest towns. Service is mostly voluntary, unpaid, and by appointment only. Nevertheless, hundreds of citizens answer the call each year, and most municipal governments would not run smoothly without them.

Municipal government has a variety of ways to attract and retain qualified committee members, and to ensure that they perform their assigned functions while fitting into the overall structure of town or city governance. Some committees involve enthusiasm for a cause, while others emphasize a quasi-judicial role in regulating land use, for instance.

While some committees fall into disuse – just as the municipal posts of fence viewer and surveyor of lumber are now largely honorary – they sometimes can be retooled and returned to prominence, as the needs and aspirations of communities continue to change and evolve.

A Mixture of Roles

Presque Isle is the largest municipality in Aroostook County (pop. 9,518), and its size has encouraged a fairly elaborate mix of standing and ad hoc committees.

City Manager Tom Stevens counts 11 standing committees, not including several independent boards to which the city council appoints members, such as the Presque Isle Housing Authority and the sewer and water districts.

Some committees there are present in almost every larger municipality, such as the planning board and zoning board of appeals. Others are more specific to this particular city – the Airport Advisory Committee, for instance, and the Forum Advisory Committee, the latter helping to oversee a community ice arena Presque Isle built years ago.

There’s also a Library Board of Trustees, and a Recreation and Parks Committee, which tend to attract “people who are passionate about those causes,” Stevens said. “They feel quite strongly about providing opportunities for learning, and for our youth, and they’re a real asset for those programs.”

Like most municipalities, Presque Isle has a board of assessment review (BAR) to hear appeals about property valuations. But it also has a registration appeals board, where voters who feel they have been improperly excluded from casting ballots can make their case.

The Presque Isle Development Fund trustees play an economic development role that’s also somewhat unusual. The city makes loans to local businesses that are starting up or expanding but have not yet found conventional financing. Using a $1.5 million revolving loan fund, the trustees make bridge loans that will help a business reach a stage of profitability that allows it to gain credit at a bank or credit union. The Presque Isle Industrial Council, meanwhile, was created to oversee the city’s business park

Sometimes an ad hoc committee turns out to meet a long-term need. That was the case with the Downtown Revitalization Committee, which started out as an effort to revive business on Main Street, but has ended up staying on for the long haul. One current project is aiding studies for a Route 1 bypass that has been long sought to route heavy traffic around downtown.

“A lot of people may not realize it, but 19,000 vehicles a day pass through our downtown,” Stevens said. “That’s more than travel most sections of the interstate.” Maine DOT recently severed bypasses for Caribou and Presque Isle from a larger Aroostook corridor transportation study to permit earlier construction. The Presque Isle bypass may see work in 2011 or 2012.

Another ad hoc committee that’s still hard at work has been siting a place for and now hopes to build a new community center, another longtime city goal. “They were instrumental in helping the city council find and evaluate sites,” the city manager said.

The committee eventually identified several parcels right in the downtown that could be joined together that weren’t in the original study. Rather than a more remote, but available property, Presque Isle will be able to build a community center within walking distance of downtown housing, schools, and businesses.

The city has now purchased the properties needed, and is creating a building plan and considering funding options.

Despite the number of committees, the city hasn’t had any difficulty filling them, Stevens said. “There are waiting lists for several committees,” he added. “For some of them, such as the library and recreation committees, competition is pretty keen.”

Council members often interview those who apply, and citizens who are chosen are required to attend a brief training course. The city advertises vacancies, and also makes it clear how often committees meet, and what the overall time commitment is.

Building Community

The small town of Liberty (pop. 973) in rural Waldo County would seem to be at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of municipal organization. And indeed, there is no town manager or administrator – not even an administrative assistant, and the three selectmen, as a 20-year veteran of that post, John Krueger, put it, “do all of the work ourselves.”

There is a planning board and a board of assessment appeals, and a single school board representative to SAD 3, and as far as official committees go, that’s about it.

But even in small towns, there is strength in community organizations, and Liberty recently decided to assess and attempt to coordinate the various volunteer and service groups represented within its borders. The town has been chosen as one of five pilot communities in a citizen education program being launched by Maine Municipal Association, and a February 11 meeting brought together many groups to see how they can create more connections.

“The town itself provides almost no services,” Krueger said,” but it can still be a focal point. The first question we need to ask is, ‘How can we help?’ “

Among the groups and interests represented were the Liberty Gardeners, historical society, Masonic lodge, Davistown Museum, farmer’s market, Liberty Food Coop, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the library, cemetery, Am Vets, Little League, Parent Teacher Organization, lake association, Fire Department, food pantry, and church groups.

Krueger points out that not all of the groups have enough members to meet locally; the Boy Scouts, for instance, belong to a troop in Belfast. But he said it’s important for towns like Liberty, where most people work out of town, to find new ways to strengthen their sense of community.

The February 11 gathering also divided into five groups that came up with numerous ideas. Among them were an “honor our elders” dinner, a monthly newsletter, Liberty-Montville block party, a welcome package for new residents, community garden, directory of businesses, mentoring in the school, and a local food market. Some of the plans were ambitious, such as building trails on town-owned land, timber harvesting, and linking to Sheepscot River conservation land.

The immediate next step for the community will be a “Neighbor for Neighbor” survey after it’s been customized for Liberty. Other towns have used this technique, which attempts to match community needs – an elderly couple who need snow shoveling, for instance – with volunteers efforts.

After attending the meeting, Krueger said he does see a role for town government in reaching out to local community organizations. “Most of them would like to be a little bit bigger, and more active, than they already are,” he said. By creating networking and communication, even the smallest towns ought to be able to do that, he said.

Resolving Differences

The passion that committee members bring to their posts, as Tom Stevens observed, can sometime lead to conflict, either with other committees or with elected town officials.

Such was the case not long ago in Kittery, where members of the Conservation Commission strongly disagreed with permits that the Zoning Board of Appeals had granted for properties the conservation members felt included valuable wetlands.

The committee members felt so passionately about the issue, in fact, that they took the unusual step of asking the town council to file a court action blocking the permits. The council declined to do so.

There are various ways town government might choose to deal with such a situation. Kittery decided to use a Committee of the Whole (with the acronym COW) to try to create better communication between various committees and boards, said Town Manager Jonathan Carter.

The way it works is that the town council chairman calls a meeting, two to four times a year, which is attended by the chairs of all the town committees, which are numerous. In addition to the Conservation Commission, Kittery has an active shellfish committee and a port authority overseeing the wharf area.

Because each committee has a particular jurisdiction, its members may not be aware of how their recommendations overlap or sometimes differ from those being made by other committees, Carter said.

The COW meetings have become an effective way of working out these differences, and of keeping the council informed of what directions committees and study groups are taking. “Sometimes it doesn’t work,” Carter said, meaning that people still disagree. “But it does ensure that everyone is on the same page,” and can work on a problem collectively.

Kittery’s committee appointments are sought after, and the council uses a personnel board to help make appointments. There’s a waiting list for membership on the port authority and shellfish committee. While it’s sometimes tough to find members for the planning board, Carter said that membership on these boards can be a tough sell in many towns.

The COW also benefits from written descriptions of each committee’s assignment and jurisdiction in the personnel handbook. It’s a pragmatic guide, Carter said, “on what to do, and what not to do.”

A Committee Revival

Sometimes committees fall into disuse even though there still might be a purpose for them. That’s what seems to have happened to conservation commissions, which were created in dozens of municipalities in the 1970s. Though there are no exact records, there appear to have been more than 200 conservation commissions at one time, but by the late 1990s their number had fallen to about 40.

Bob Shafto, who was then chairman of the Falmouth Conservation Commission, thinks he knows why. The rise of local land trusts, he said, replaced much of what conservation commissions were supposed to do.

“The focus back then was on land protection and land acquisition,” he said. “The thinking was that the private sector could do this better, and land trusts were formed in almost every coastal town and region.”

Shafto said that there’s no conflict between conservation commissions and land trusts – he’s also a former chairman of the Falmouth Land Trust, and many other active conservation commissions worked to set up local trusts. But there’s plenty of work to be done beyond land acquisition and management, and the message seems to be getting through.

Though there is still no formal list, the Maine Association of Conservation Commissions – where Shafto now serves as executive director – identifies 73 “known conservation commissions,” with the largest number in York, Cumberland and Kennebec counties, and with at least one commission in 12 of Maine’s 16 counties.

The new roles that conservation commissions are taking include advising other municipal boards on wetlands and shoreland zoning issues, monitoring water quality, and identifying critical wildlife habitat.

One of the hot topics for conservation commissions at the moment is open space planning, with workshops, courses and conferences on the subject, including a statewide meeting in Augusta on April 16.

Shafto said that awareness of sprawl and the amount of critical resources being consumed by development in the 1980s and ‘90s was part of the impetus that led to the re-creation of many commissions. Another recent spur was the 2006 Brookings Report that helped create the “special places” movement that seems to have struck a chord with many Mainers.

“The landscape and all the things that take place outdoors is a big reason why people come to Maine, and why they stay here,” he said. “There was a sense, though, that we were losing Maine in the way we have known it.”

Each conservation commission creates its own mission, and local concerns are usually paramount. In towns like Rockport and Waldoboro, water quality for clam flats was a major focus, and the Waldoboro commission was instrumental in reopening flats closed to harvesting that are now among the state’s most productive.

Ironically, success did not lead to longevity, and the conservation commission was disbanded by selectmen several years later. This year, though, town meeting voted to revive the commission to take on a new range of issues.

In Bar Harbor, the conservation commission cut its teeth on wetlands issues, and later devoted its attention to the light pollution that interferes with the traditional nighttime pursuit of stargazing. Last year, Bar Harbor became the first Maine municipality to pass a “dark skies” ordinance, which limits outdoor lighting in terms of intensity and, particularly, direction.

In Veazie, the conservation commission helps manage the town forest, and in Ogunquit, “They’re involved in just about everything,” Shafto said. Ogunquit’s goal is to be “the greenest town in Maine,” an important point for one of the state’s famed tourist destinations.

Other commissions, such as in Manchester, have been instrumental in spurring more recycling, while Topsham’s commission is drawing up an ordinance that would allow transfer of development rights. Developers in Topsham’s growth zones would be allowed to build more densely, while paying to preserve open space in outlying areas.

Sometimes, just rolling up one’s sleeves can be enough. In Phippsburg, the town decided it couldn’t afford to hire a consultant to map vernal pools, as required under a recent state law. So the conservation commission recruited a group of young people to head out in the woods and find them. “The kids were playing out there anyway, so they knew where to look,” he said.

Care and Feeding

Those who deal with municipal committees regularly say they can be highly useful in performing specific functions and investigating new projects and proposals, whether building a public safety building, or drawing up an energy efficiency plan.

Recognition and respect are important – a few towns have volunteer appreciation days, or dinners – but so are clear rules and guidelines. While elected officials get most of the news coverage, and are most often called on the carpet at town meeting, the work by committees behind the scenes can make a lot of difference.

A thriving committee system, Tom Stevens said, is important to making sure municipal government works. In Presque Isle, “The city council is appreciative of the wide cross-section of opinion they’re able to get from the committees. They recognize that they can’t do it all themselves.”