Ellsworth to consider changes to city charter

Posted Aug. 11, 2010, at 11:13 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:07 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Notice about library board meetings, how many councilors are needed to not renew a city manager’s contract, and whether appointed members of city committees need to be locally registered voters all were matters of discussion Tuesday night at a meeting at City Hall.

Seven members of the city’s charter commission met Tuesday with the City Council to go over proposed revisions to Ellsworth’s city charter. If the changes are approved by voters in November, it will be the first time any changes have been made to the city’s official organizational document in 25 years.

One of the issues discussed Tuesday was what kind of majority of the council would be needed to not renew a city manager’s contract. Some members of the two boards suggested a simple majority would be appropriate. Others said a supermajority, or at least five council members, should be the minimum.

Ellsworth City Manager Michelle Beal, a member of the commission, said at the meeting that the threshold for nonrenewal should be high. She said that in some cases in Maine where city or town managers have not had their contracts renewed, some newly elected councilors or selectmen had run with that sole goal in mind. Because of the nature of their jobs, appointed managers can’t help but make some residents unhappy, she said, but still nonrenewals often are controversial and create divisions within communities.

Ellsworth went through such an experience in 2003, when four city councilors decided not to renew the contract of then-manager Tim King, who had held the position since 1990.

King, who still resides in Ellsworth, serves on the charter commission and attended Tuesday’s meeting. His specific experience seven years ago was not brought up during Tuesday’s meeting.

Councilor Stephen Beathem said that charters often receive a lot of public attention when councilors or selectmen decide not to renew a manager’s contract.

“This is the one subject that probably brings more people to the table to look at charters,” Beathem said.

Another issue discussed Tuesday was how much notice needs to be given before the city’s library board of trustees holds a public meeting. The draft charter calls for 24 hours notice, but Councilor Gary Fortier said notice should be given further in advance.

The City Council gives advance notice of its meetings at least a week ahead of time, he noted. Not every board should have the same requirement as the council, he said, but the library board of trustees is the only city board besides the council that is elected and controls taxpayer funds. The local school board lost its ability to authorize expenditures when Ellsworth became part of Regional School Unit 24 last summer.

“My concern is that they’re making policy and spending taxpayer dollars,” Fortier said of the library board of trustees.

The issue of requiring appointed committee members to also be registered voters in Ellsworth was discussed Tuesday. Fortier said he thought that such committee members should meet the requirement without being required to register.

Jason Barrett, vice chairman of the charter commission, said voter registration records often are the only way city officials can determine if someone is a local resident. Also, he added, being registered to vote in Ellsworth is an indication that a prospective committee member has a civic investment in the city.

“As a commission, we felt like there should be some level of commitment,” Barrett said.

The charter commission also is proposing that the city’s finance department have more oversight of the library’s budget and expenditures.

The two boards discussed the minimum amount of money that has to be at stake for proposed capital expenditures for voters to require that it be decided by referendum instead of a City Council vote. The proposed figure is half of 1 percent of the city’s state valuation that, at Ellsworth’s current valuation of $1 billion, would be $5 million. If the measure were in effect now, residents could not require a referendum vote on any proposed capital expenditure for less than that amount. Capital expenditures for the city sewer or water departments, or any that are funded entirely by ratepayers instead of through property taxes, would be exempt from the referendum option.

Beal said Wednesday that the charter commission, which began reviewing possible changes to the city charter a year ago, will consider the council’s recommendations and meet one more time to decide on the final proposed charter language. She said the commission’s final meeting has not yet been set, but that it likely will be in early September.

Beal said copies of the proposed charter are available at City Hall and on the city’s official website, http://cityofellsworthme.org/.

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