HARPSWELL — After hearing contradicting outside legal opinions about their public comment policy, the Board of Selectmen is asking the town attorney for advice on how to proceed.
The action came during a Sept. 1 board meeting that was also marked by an impassioned exchange between selectmen and a town resident over access to public landings.
Chris Coffin, who has served as the steward of the Steamboat Wharf landing on Bailey Island and on the town lands committee, said he is concerned that waterfront access is being lost because of poor maintenance of roads leading to the landings. He argued that many landings, notably Steamboat Wharf and Graveyard Point, are or have been overgrown by bushes.
He said Steamboat Wharf landing is particularly important because “it’s one of the only spots where you can see your boat at night in the winter.”
His remarks prompted Selectman Alison Hawkes to say maintaining public access to the shore should be a higher priority for the town.
“I think that public access is so important to us that this should be the top of our list; this is how we attract tourists, this is why people come here, this is for our fisherman, this is Harpswell,” Hawkes said.
She also asked why the bushes on Graveyard Point and Steamboat Wharf are not trimmed more regularly.
“How come we waited this long to say … let’s get that fixed?” Hawkes said.
Town Administrator Kristi Eiane responded that regular maintenance is done on both landings, but often only consists of mowing, not shrub trimming. She suggested that town staff more frequently update selectmen on the type and frequency of maintenance at all landings.
Selectmen also discussed another problematic town landing just off Hildreth Road. Commercial fishermen have been fighting with a neighbor, Margaret McMahon Hickey, for months over access to a gravel beach shared by Hickey and the town on Harpswell Sound.
In early July, Eiane sent Hickey a letter proposing improvements to poorly paved Gravel Pit Road, which leads to the beach, and better identification of town property.
But Eiane said Tuesday that she has not received any response after sending three letters, and is now talking with past and current town road commissioners to establish a town maintenance history of the Gravel Pit Road so that Harpswell can proceed with repairing the road.
“Our preference would to have been to have heard from the property owner … (but) there’s only so much time you can give waiting for a response,” she said.
Selectmen also told Eiane to get a legal opinion from the town attorney about proposed changes to Harpswell’s public comment policy.
The board has been criticized by residents and the Maine Civil Liberties Union since a July 7 vote to ban public comment about School Administrative District 75. The ruling came after a debate resident Robert McIntyre had with Hawkes and Chairwoman Ellie Multer over disability law compliance at Harpswell Community School.
Multer invoked a year-old policy that allows selectmen to prohibit “repeated airing of views on on-going controversial topics (during public comment) unless and until such time as a topic presents a question requiring immediate action or a decision by the Board of Selectmen, at which time the issue will be placed upon the agenda.”
Since then, Multer said, she has received several letters from town residents opposing the ban, plus a letter from Zachary Heiden, legal director at the MCLU.
Heiden’s Aug. 31 letter criticized several aspects in Harpswell’s public comment policy, specifically the clause cited by Multer. He said content-based bans of free speech are inconsistent with the First Amendment and give government officials the power to stifle debate or silence critics.
Heiden also noted that courts are usually hostile to such restrictions, and urged the board to “amend its public participation policy to remove all content-based restrictions, rather than waiting for a court to order you to make such changes.”
But the selectmen received contradicting advice from the legal services department at the Maine Municipal Association.
In an Aug. 18 email to Eiane, MMA staff attorney Susanne Pilgrim said banning discussion of SAD 75 during public comment complies with the law as long as the subject banned is unrelated to any decision or action in front of the board and was “applied in an evenhanded manner to all comments on this subject matter and not merely some viewpoints on the issue.”
Pilgrim did not address the portion of the town’s public comment policy that relates to “repeated airing of views on on-going controversial topics.”
Harpswell resident Len Freeman urged the board to make an additional change to the policy by removing the sentence that encourages speakers to identify which part of town they are from.
“There are too many things that divide us as a town and my feeling is that official policy should not be one of them,” he said. “… Encouraging us to say what part of town we come from only accentuates those divisions.”
Although everyone agreed with Freeman, the selectmen decided to group that amendment with whatever change they make to the “controversial topics” section of the policy.
Any new amendment to the policy would be the fifth in less than two years.