Lubec selectmen begin controversial new public input policy

Posted Nov. 27, 2013, at 2:41 p.m.

LUBEC, Maine — The Lubec Board of Selectmen has begun operating with a new, formal policy that governs public comment by residents at meetings, but not everyone is happy with it.

The board’s meeting Nov. 21 was the first to be held since it adopted the new guidelines to regulate public input at meetings.

The public comment period was held at the end of the meeting, observed resident Karen Burke. Why have the public comment period at the end of the meeting — after the board has conducted business and voted, she asked?

“As a citizen, I hope they can engage the public and listen to the public,” said Burke, who signed a petition in recent months that ultimately spurred the board to adopt the new policy.

She also suggested this week that the selectmen need to “adopt a code of conduct for themselves.”

“There continues to be unchallenged rudeness coming from at least one [selectman] … and it wasn’t challenged by the chair,” said Burke, who did not identify the impolite board member. “And I don’t want my fellow citizens to have to endure that.”

Maureen Glidden, chairman of the board, when asked Tuesday how last week’s meeting went under the new policy, said, “It went fine.”

When asked Wednesday about holding the public comment period at the end of the meeting, Glidden responded, “It always is.”

Asked whether holding the public comment period at the end of the meeting essentially defeated the purpose of soliciting public input, Glidden replied, “It has always been held at the end of the meeting. Do you have any more questions?”

The board, which previously did not have a policy governing public input at meetings, voted 5-0 to adopt the guidelines at its Nov. 7 session. The new policy, which was based on guidance provided by the Maine Municipal Association, states that its purpose is to “ensure that all opinions can be expressed and heard in an orderly fashion.” It calls for “courteous and respectful” dialogue.

Residents who wish to speak must raise a hand and wait to be recognized by the board chairman; only one person will be allowed to speak at a time. Speakers must stand and give their name for the record. Comments will be limited to two minutes. Under the policy, the chairman may moderate a discussion.

In a somewhat related move, the board voted 4-1 on Nov. 7 to reject a request by some residents to put the brakes on plans by Family Dollar to establish a store in the coastal village.

The new public comment rules were prompted by a board meeting in early October at which a group of people presented a petition opposing plans for the new store in town. The ensuing discussion devolved into a sharp exchange between selectmen and residents at times.

At the following board meeting in late October, the selectmen voted temporarily to suspend public comment during its sessions pending the adoption of a formal policy or rules governing public input.

Robert Judd, one of the residents who presented the petition in October, suggested the board missed an “opportunity” for constructive public input by rejecting the petition.

“It’s disappointing that the selectmen sidestepped the opportunity to embrace opinions and suggestions from the broader community,” said Judd, a summer resident who spoke by phone from Virginia recently.

The petition was signed by 158 people, which is more than usually show up for the annual town meeting, according to Judd.

Although the petition did not mention Family Dollar by name, it was clearly aimed at least at delaying the company’s entry into the community. It sought a temporary moratorium on the development of any new retail building “that would be occupied and operated as part of a chain typically known as dollar stores and big-box stores.”

The petition also called for “transparency” and a “wide open process” of public input. Supporters of the petition sought time for residents to consider the potential impact a dollar store or big-box store would have on existing businesses and the overall community. The petition called for leaving the moratorium in place until the board convened public hearings, prepared a draft ordinance related to dollar stores and big-box stores, and sought a vote at Lubec’s next annual town meeting.

The petition was prompted by a letter the board drafted and sent to Family Dollar officials in September, welcoming the company’s interest in Lubec.

At the Nov. 7 board meeting, town officials disclosed that an “intent to build” notice had been received from Family Dollar. The business will be located at 105 Main Street in a building that contained a defunct restaurant.

Family Dollar expects to open the store in the second half of 2014, according to Bryn Winburn, public relations manager for the North Carolina-based company. Winburn called it “unfortunate” that some Lubec residents “do not understand our brand and the efforts we make to be a good community partner.”

State law does not require a public comment period at meetings of a local board of selectmen or city or town council, noted Eric Conrad, a spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association.

The adoption of a policy by the Lubec board is “fairly common,” he added via email. “Many cities and towns have taken steps in this regard.”

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