Bangor’s Nuclear Option

Posted Dec. 03, 2009, at 5:52 p.m.

A recall of five councilors is not the right response to the Bangor City Council’s decision to show Ed Barrett the door. Though resident Jim Elmore has every right to pursue what might be called the nuclear option in municipal governance, it will not serve the city in the long term and it will not bring back Mr. Barrett, who, next month, will take over as Lewiston’s city manager.

Clearly, the council has mishandled the manager affair. There may have been legitimate reasons for councilors to negotiate an earlier departure for Mr. Barrett. If the new council is determined to take on and complete some big projects in the coming years, such as planning and building a new auditorium and conference center, it may not want to have a new manager come on board in the midst of the process. Councilors also may want a skill set different from Mr. Barrett’s, skills perhaps suited to a new, bolder agenda.

Of course, this is all conjecture, because councilors have not stated why they moved to end the manager’s 22-plus-year stay prematurely, beyond alluding to a difference of vision. The council has let too much time pass without articulating its vision for the city, which raises the question why and how the vision was out of tune with Mr. Barrett.

So the recall provision, provided for in the city charter, is an understandable step for residents to take. But it will ultimately cause the council and the city to lose traction on any agenda — new, old or otherwise. The signature-gathering process will spur claims and counterclaims about individual councilors, bad feelings among their supporters and detractors will ensue.

Mike Starn, communications director for the Maine Municipal Association, compares the process to impeachment of the president. Impeachment at least includes a standard — high crimes and misdemeanors. The recall provision has no standard.

Before the early 1990s, only communities with recall provisions in their charter could undertake the removal process. In the 420 communities without charters, no recall was possible. Then the Legislature adopted a law that allows towns and cities to adopt a recall ordinance.

Van Buren voters last month recalled three town councilors for — you guessed it — terminating a town manager’s contract. The town of Paris recently enacted a recall ordinance and is in the midst of setting a date for a recall vote for two selectmen for — again — their failure to renew a town manager’s contract. Voters may not be tuned in to the details of municipal policy, but generally they have an opinion about the manager.

Sometimes the recall effort pushes an elected official to resign before it comes to a vote, or the official is defended by the public and the petition effort fizzles. Still, Mr. Starn believes “it should not be entered into lightly. This is not something you can use in a whimsical way.”

Bangor residents should heed that advice, and consider the quality of councilors they can expect to serve if a recall looms after every major decision.

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