Post-town meeting in Thomaston: Too late to change course?
At the June 14 Thomaston 2023 Annual Town Meeting, the vote to preserve part of the existing park known to most as the Thomaston Green lost by four votes. The slim majority present voted to allow the Select Board to sell 1.5 acres to a proposed Health Center. Few, including those who voted against, oppose an expanded Health Center serving the entire Midcoast region. What half the Town voters in attendance objected to is how this was being shoved down our throats by the insistence that:
1. It be located on the Town’s largest, most accessible, and most historic extant park, and,
2. The vote was arbitrarily and purposely buried within a long list of 30 plus Warrant Articles that allowed only in-person votes to count.
Because the turn-out was far greater than anyone anticipated, the small gymnasium at the former Lura Libby was filled far beyond capacity. The Select Board apparently authorized our own fire department representatives to break Maine law. I cannot imagine what the State Fire Marshal might think about putting citizens in harm’s way.
The meeting should have been postponed. Were any of the evening’s votes even legal under these questionable circumstances? The Select Board’s acquiescence to its own agenda and ramming speed decision-making processes, along with simple incompetence, compounds why many of us no longer trust our elected officials.
Clearly, this is yet another reason this Town Meeting should have been handled by way of secret and drop-off balloting. I am uncertain whether Thomaston even has a public space large enough to serve as a legal gathering place for even half of its citizens eligible to vote.
This Town meeting raises a number of important questions concerning the ethical behavior of our own Town representatives. First, let me propose that the in-person only vote on such a divisive issue can only be remedied by a full secret ballot voting structure allowing for absentee and drop-off ballots.
I personally know of three votes that could not be cast because of health issues and longtime overseas travel plans.
I have to believe there are many others whose votes were undemocratically excluded and suppressed by the Select Board’s “hide the ball” tactics in this instance. And, yes, there are probably absent voters who would have been OK with allowing the Select Board to buy this pig in a poke, to negotiate a permanent sale of this important parcel with a building even they have no clue as to what it will look like (including a large parking lot), what its traffic impact might be, and how its activities might compromise and even conflict with recreational programs on the rest of the Green (that thanks to a last minute citizen-initiated amendment, parts of which are now protected in perpetuity).
And, it is unclear how the new health center will be able to raise sufficient funds to not only build the ambitiously scaled clinic, much less sustain its operating costs.
Will 50% of Thomaston residents, who voted against placing it on the Green, contribute? Doubtful. Having directed nonprofits for most of my professional life, I can tell health facility advocates that pissing off fully half of your community is not a blueprint for fundraising success.
Part of this year’s election was held by secret ballot to elect a new select board member. I congratulate Chris Rector who has been a strong advocate for the health center; we disagree where it might best be located.
But, this newly constituted Select Board has its work cut out for it. First, its must consider implementing new policies for Town Meetings that place major issues on a secret ballot with ample lead-time for people to vote via absentee or drop-off ballots.
We need a formal code of ethics signed by every elected official, all paid management employees, as well as all volunteer members of town committees. Elected officials must also avoid even the perception of conflicts of interest in order to maintain trust with those who they have been elected to serve.
At a minimum, this code should require everyone to list all current and former (within three to five years) relationships with businesses and organizations potentially representing conflicts of interest. Many at the 2023 Annual Town Meeting, myself included, have not been especially active in local politics. The way the meeting was mishandled, however, has our attention.
Something is wrong here. I am hopeful that our dwindling population will be able to attract younger voters and families attuned to 21st century governance where everyone must have an opportunity to fully engage and participate in local government.
Protecting the Green would have been an important part of making Thomaston younger, more alive to its potential. Too late to change course?
Christopher Crosman lives in Thomaston