Editorial: It's getting harder to be heard in Harpswell

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We ask a lot of our local elected officials.

We expect them to be know-it-alls on topics ranging from general assistance to residential zoning.

We ask them to pinch pennies in multi-million-dollar budgets.

They put in long hours, and usually don’t get paid much, if at all.

And on Election Day, we’ll send them packing without as much as a thank you.

But one of the least onerous things we ask of them is that they listen to us. Hear us out. Allow us to say what’s on our minds and get things off our chests.

Besides placing topics on their agendas for full discussion, town councils and boards of selectmen usually provide public comment periods where residents can say what they want about any town issue, within limits of time, decency and respect for others; inappropriate, offensive, interruptive, or repetitive comments are usually off limits.

When they do allow comments, councilors and selectmen don’t have to respond, or even pay attention (although it obviously serves us all if they do). All they have to do is sit there, wait out the few minutes each member of the public is typically allotted, and then move on to their regularly scheduled business.

But that’s not the case recently in Harpswell, where the simple act of listening and showing respect for the public was too much for two of the town’s three selectmen.

Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Elinor Multer and Selectman Alison S. Hawkes have apparently had enough of resident Robert McIntyre’s rants about School Administrative District 75. But instead of sitting there for a few minutes during their meetings and listening to him, or just ignoring his comments, they’ve now stopped him from speaking by invoking a questionable policy that allows the board to ban discussion of any topic the selectmen decide is too “controversial.” 

Not too long. Not offensive. Not inappropriate. But too “controversial.”

“We have had, in my view, a more than adequate debate,” Multer said.

Really? In a town where people have dickered for years in a questionable dispute about the border with Brunswick, Harpswell’s participation in SAD 75, with its tangible impact on finances and education, is too “controversial” to discuss?

In our view, Multer is wrong.

The ban she and Hawkes pushed through, over the dissent of Selectman James S. Henderson, unfairly targets McIntyre and looks like a blatant attempt to silence an opposing viewpoint. The policy amendment that Multer and Hawkes invoked was introduced only a year ago – by Multer, when a handful of town residents who opposed closing West Harpswell School, including McIntyre, kept raising the issue at board meetings. Hawkes and Multer both opposed the recent, unsuccessful referendum that would have advanced the process of withdrawal from the school district, while McIntyre supported it.

But the margin of victory was narrow. Whether there is yet another referendum on SAD 75 will be decided by the town’s registered voters. The discussion shouldn’t be muted by a pair of selectmen who are tired of hearing an opposing viewpoint, and who in the process are sending a chilling message to anyone who may want to bring something “controversial” to the board’s attention.

Zachary Heiden, legal director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, said he found it troubling that “they would give themselves the power to ban controversial speech without defining what controversial means.”

“This vague standard that the council is applying is without any real guidance, and the fact that the power to ban is content-based, those are all First Amendment red flags,” Heiden told The Forecaster’s Emily Guerin.

Henderson, the dissenting selectman, got it right when he told Guerin a “small amount of irritation … is definitely worth absorbing, as compared to appearing to be cutting off discussion of issues you don’t want to hear about.”

Selectmen can ultimately dictate the terms of their own business meetings, including whether to allow public comment and to what extent. But once they decide they will listen to the public, and if they extend that courtesy to everyone else, it isn’t unreasonable to expect them to listen to people who disagree with them, too.

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