One of the biggest issues that I saw before ultimately deciding to run for county commissioner was the fact meetings were not accessible to the public, particularly for working Mainers.
I saw regularly scheduled county commission meetings at 4:30PM, 4PM, with special workshops and public hearings held even earlier at 3:30PM and 3PM. To make those meeting times, you’d have to leave even earlier to make it over to Alfred in time.
Sadly, this is not uncommon for county governments across our state. In fact, we are one of the latest meetings, with most held in the middle of the day or even in the morning. Cumberland County holds the title for the latest meeting at 5:30PM, which is still a lot earlier than most selectboard and city council meetings held at 6:30 or 7PM.
We should be the most accessible commission meeting in the state. Which is why I proposed a motion at my very first meeting after getting sworn into office to move the meeting time to 6PM.
We spent 13 minutes debating the issue. Opposition to the motion centered around prioritizing county staff attendance at our meetings over public attendance. Don’t we work for the public? Surely, staff who need to be there, can simply come a little later, but I guess that’s too much to ask. Apparently, we are there to serve staff only. Their schedule, their time, is more important than yours. Moreover, we heard commissioners voice their comparisons to the legislature, which does in fact meet during the day, but the county commission meets twice a month. It is not the legislature. The most appalling argument was suggesting that people should just take off work to be at our meetings. Working Mainers have enough to worry about keeping their heads above water to provide for themselves and their families, they don’t need to worry about taking off work to be a meeting that could simply be shifted a little later.
Ultimately, I couldn’t get consensus on 6PM. Nor 5:30PM. We landed on a ‘compromise’ of 5PM. Better than 4:30PM sure, but not good enough. Fellow commissioners have given me 6 months to ‘prove’ 5PM is a better time, expecting the public to magically start attending our meetings, otherwise, we are reverting to 4:30PM. This shouldn’t be so hard to make sure you are able to attend.
Why push this? It may seem like this is not the most important issue right now with everything else going on, but when your government is not accessible, no less than transparency and accountability are at stake. Your voice is literally shut out of a decision-making process that involves tens of millions of your hard-earned tax dollars.
This is not about whether hundreds of people suddenly show up to our meetings. It’s about the principle of ensuring you have an opportunity to participate in government proceedings, if you so choose to. I’ve seen some Saco City Council meetings basically empty while other times it’s standing room only. As elected officials, we still have to give constituents a reason to show up. Connect the dots around the importance of our work and why making your voice heard will move the needle to benefit all. If the structure of government is set up to limit your voice and participation, you are never given that opportunity.
We need to convince just one of these commissioners to change their mind: Richard Dutremble of Biddeford firstname.lastname@example.org, Bob Andrews of Lebanon email@example.com and Richard Clark of Wells firstname.lastname@example.org. If just one of them heard from their constituents and listened to our collective concern around accessibility, we could have a 5:30 or even a 6PM meeting schedule. I encourage everyone to reach out.
In the meantime, public comment is available at every single meeting, held the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of each month at the county administrative building at 149 Jordan Springs Road in Alfred. We have hybrid capable meetings, where you can tune in and provide comments remotely as well. Zoom links are provided in each agenda posted on YorkCountyMaine.gov.
In other news, my colleagues did elect me into a leadership role, literally the first meeting of my first term, as vice chair of the commission. This puts me in a strong position to advocate and advance the principles of good governance and increasing public engagement within county government. The work has just begun and this fight is not over.
Justin Chenette is the County Commissioner for Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, & Buxton and serves as vice chair of the commission. He also serves on the executive committee of the Southern Maine Planning & Development Commission, Maine Right to Know Advisory Committee, Age Friendly Saco board, and provides college scholarships through his foundation. Get county updates at CommissionerChenette.com.
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