2016-10-14 / Front Page

Kennebunk considers committees

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Selectmen in Kennebunk have begun the process of bringing some order to the town’s cornucopia of committees.

At a special two-hour workshop Monday, Oct. 4, selectmen held a listening session with committee chairman, initiating what Chairman Richard Morin predicted might evolve into a series of “four of five” work sessions leading to significant revision of operating policies.

Over the past year or more, selectmen and town officials have questioned whether the various committees are operating as efficiently as they could, and whether they are meeting their intended objectives. Meanwhile, communications, including official minutes, have been criticized. Although Town Manager Barry Tibbetts said the town’s inventory of minutes “is a great plus from just a few months ago,” many committees nonetheless still failed to produce an official record of some meetings.

“One of the things that I see,” Tibbetts said, “is that the number of members on a given committee does not always match what its by-laws say. That doesn’t sound like a big detail, but it is. We need to be consistent.”

Some committees have no by-laws, leaving membership numbers a matter of whoever claims the best memory of original intent.

“It doesn’t mean they’re not doing their job,” Tibbetts said of the occasional lack of operating rules. “It may mean we have not conveyed to them that they need by-laws.”

At the Oct. 4 session, selectmen reviewed information on all 39 town committees. That’s more than any surrounding municipality.

According to a list compiled by Tibbetts, Kennebunkport has 21 standing committees, while Arundel maintains eight. Biddeford has 31, while Sanford keeps just six.

That led Selectmen Shiloh Schulte to suggest some Kennebunk committees, particularly those that are known to be inactive, should be officially disbanded.

“Maintaining a manageable level seems appropriate,” he said.

Others pointed to particular committees toward the chopping block.

“The Cable TV committee is the most useless committee in the history of Kennebunk,” Selectman Blake Baldwin said.

For those committees that remain, some need defined terms of office for appointees, Tibbetts said.

“On some committees, the people who are appointed to them, they’re on there for life, in theory,” he said.

Some cited a fear that official terms might drive away highly productive committee members. Leslie Lindgren, chairman of Kennebunk’s community garden committee, said some in her group log more than 100 hours of volunteer work per gardening season, producing this past year more than 5,000 pounds of fresh produce donated to local food pantries. .

“If a term is up, will that person be asked to continue?” she wanted to know.

Selectman Christopher Cluff said reappointment of a member in good standing has always been selectmen’s unwritten policy. However, Schulte said maybe that, too, needs to change.

“Generally, it’s supposed to be a good thing to have turnover,” he said. “We are supposed to get people moving through these committees.”

Morin said reappointment is up to the selectboard’s discretion, as detailed in the current policy, last updated in May 2013.

He also pointed out that the policy states that all regular appointments are for three years, with alternate members getting a one-year nod.

Some on both the selectboard and the among the gathered committee chairmen questioned the need for alternate members on non-binding boards, i.e. those that do not make legally binding decisions, such as the planning board, or the zoning board of appeals.

Alternate members are required to attend the same number of meetings as regular members, but only get to cast a vote if needed to create a quorum — the minimum number of members present needed to conduct business.

“What is the role of the alternate? Why would you show up if you can’t vote?” Selectman Deborah Beal asked.

However, whether as an alternate or a regular member, some said selectmen need a better process for picking committee members.

“Folks apply and come to us and we have a little dog-and-pony show and we send everybody on their way if we think they’re good for that committee,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said. “But in the past we have appointed people who have caused issues and worked contrary to the goals of those committees.”

Cluff’s call to gather input from sitting committee members, or at least the chairman, was met with mixed reviews. Lindgren liked the idea, saying her group would like to have a sense of an applicants’ abilities.

“It would be nice if our board was notified of an appointment, and if we could get a copy of their application, so when they first show up we have some idea who they might be,” planning board chairman,” Chris MacClinchy said.

But Schulte said he had concerns with running appointments by committee members first, as did Tibbetts’ administrative assistant, Kathleen Nolette, who tracks all committee applications.

“I don’t think committee chairs should be choosing their members,” Nolette said. “I talk to a lot chairs when they come in and to a lot of committee members when they don’t like somebody who’s applied and whatever. You’re going to get into committees becoming cliques and clubs and things like that. I think it should be a selectmen’s decision. But maybe you should have more than 15 minutes to interview a lot of people.”

Selectmen all nodded in agreement with that advice, but, at their Oct. 11 meeting, they had allotted just 15 minutes to interview nine applicants to five committees, three of which has multiple applicants for one open voting slot.

The issue of gender equity also was raised by Rachel Phipps, a member of the town’s economic development committee. She pointed out that all members of the town budget board are male, and yet a man recently got the nod over a female for a vacant seat.

But Beal said that’s just how the chips fall on occasion, when selectmen are trying purposefully to not discriminate.

“It never even entered my radar that there was gender inequity, because my children have raised me that there are not genders, there are only people. I will never vote for a person for any position, no matter how big the position is, because of gender.”

Still, Phipps said a “policy rubric” should be crafted to guide selectmen in the appointment process, helping them to know who to pick based on a variety of selection criteria. And, in keeping with state law, Phipps said a policy should be crafted that would compel selectmen to give a written explanation when passing over someone for reappointment.

Cluff agreed selectmen need to exercise great care when choosing to pull someone from a committee.

“We have a very fine line here,” he said. “We are appointing people who are helping out town staff and it’s always hard to fire volunteers. Without a policy we get caught. We just say we feel good about this or we feel good about that, today the wind is blowing east, or it’s blowing west, and we’re going to do it however we want to do it. I would like to see a better guidance on our appointment process, and for dismissals.”

Most at the meeting seemed to agree the biggest issue at present is an historic lack of direction from selectmen.

“We have an embarrassment of riches in the number of people who are willing to serve this town,” Baldwin said, noting there are 175 people now serving on the town’s 39 committees. “The question is, are we marshaling those resources in the most effective way?

“The committees are out there doing their thing, God bless them, but I think we owe them a little more direction than we’ve being giving them, at least over the past five or six years that I’ve been involved.”

On that front, some questioned the exact role of the selectboard liaison to each committee, while other’s suggested various groups could be working at crossed purposes.

“One of the challenges I see is the planning groups — the three village committees, the planning board, the site plan review board, the economic development committee, the comprehensive planning committee — they don’t know what each other is doing. We have no idea of the big picture is, and I think that’s important,” said Brenda S. Robinson, a member of the site plan committee. “We know what Route 1 is going to become if we don’t all work together. We need some cohesiveness —somebody who communicates with all of the committees.

As big a concern for Robinson, however, was that something come of the brainstorming sessions, once they’re all said and done.

“We’ve had a number of workshops where a list of action items have come out and there’s never been any follow-up. It falls into a black hole,” she said. “People come out and give their ideas and give their souls and then there’s nothing. That’s why when this meeting came out, I asked, what is the purpose, because if it’s going to be another black hole I’m staying home.”

Selectmen assured Robinson and others in attendance that “this isn’t going anywhere,” and vowed to call another meeting, in a more informal setting that might attract more young people, and those less likely to attend a formal selectmen’s meeting, at which more ideas can be bandied about and opinions collected in small working groups.

A date for that meeting was not set, however, and selectmen are booked through November on workshops, with a session on the Nov. 1 to discuss employee salaries and on the Nov. 29 to review the recent strategic plan survey of residents and to begin budget talks for next year.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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