Direct democracy is not efficient. Anyone who has tried to get things done with open public participation -- even at small-town level -- knows that. Turning the responsibility over to legislators, who then delegate most of the detailed work to paid employees, is a quicker way to get things done. It means fewer meetings and fewer arguments, at least at the early stages of policy moves, when few people know what’s going on.
Delegating the work to employees doesn’t shrink just time, though. It also shrinks the potential for imaginative, bottom-up solutions to today’s seemingly intractable and divisive problems. As political divisions stymie the big, creative initiatives seemingly called for by the climate and other crises threatening the globe today, our communities still offer seedbeds for solutions.
Towns and neighborhoods are where hope still exists for people of all political, social and religious bents to work together to find less polluting and more equitable ways of living together. Bloomberg News recently chronicled a fascinating tale of how the 1,750-person town of John Day in heavily Trump-supporting, once timber-producing Grant County, Oregon, came up with a plan to transform itself into “the first self-sustaining community in the country.” It makes inspiring reading.
Direct democracy and public participation are hallmarks of New England town government. Camden exemplifies that better than many Maine towns, with power still residing directly in the citizens. This is evident in the long list of items put before the voters annually and sometimes more often, as with the special town vote last winter at the Snow Bowl on a contract for energy efficiency work on town buildings, which needed to be signed quickly in order to lock in low interest rates.
At that meeting, Camden voters not only approved the contract, they overwhelmingly endorsed climate-change goals that will require slashing fossil fuel use over time. The Camden Select Board’s decision to impose an “hiatus” on its advisory committees came just a month after that highly successful and climate-supportive Snow Bowl gathering – even though Energy and Sustainability Committee debates helped resolve issues that could have derailed the energy efficiency contract.
These committees are an aspect of the 17th Century model of New England town government operating at its 21st Century best. They should not be tossed out in order to make the day-to-day tasks of town government simpler.
Yet last month the Select Board extended indefinitely that hiatus on most discretionary town committees that serve “at the pleasure of the Select Board.” The statutory Planning and Budget committees aren’t affected, but the Energy and Sustainability, Historic Resources, and Opera House committees are, as apparently is the Camden Conservation Commission, among others. It would seem that at least some of the Select Board members aren’t taking much pleasure in these committees and would rather they just went away.
One clear exception is Marc Ratner. Noting that his involvement with town government had started in such committees, Ratner made an eloquent plea for their continuation: “I’ve seen some really good things happen because it started with committees in this town… I would still like to see that creativity and engaging of people in helping their town [continue] without too many controls, so we hear what they have to say.“
Other Select Board members suggested that people could share ideas with board members just as well by email or in chance encounters. But how much input will there actually be, and how much account will Select Board members take of it, if they have just voted to put decades-old committees out-of-operation because they complicate life for the Select Board and the officials they hire?
This isn’t the only move of late to discourage Camden citizens’ direct involvement in official business. Plans for a park, farmers’ market, sports facilities and affordable housing units drawn up by a group of local residents, the Friends of Tannery Park, for the Apollo Tannery property on Washington Street was summarily rejected last winter by the Select Board in favor of proposals from out-of-town, for-profit developers.
Those proposals subsequently collapsed, as so many proposals by distant developers for that property have over the last decade. Planning for the tannery property is back to ground zero, and Friends of Tannery Park members are fed up and discouraged by a process in which their concerns were largely ignored.
These weren’t “nimby” types fighting to avoid use of this space for socially desirable goals such as subsidized housing. This is a local association working to do good both for their neighborhood and the town as a whole, including its less advantaged residents. This is the kind of innovative effort our town – and our country – need.
The frustration of town officials and Select Board members who have to listen to town committees and neighborhood associations rather than just getting on with doing things their way is understandable. And their way is often a good way. But Camden, like so much of this country and the world, will end up a better place if as many as possible of the people who live here are involved in as much decision-making as possible. It’s been – and should remain -- the Camden way.