PORTLAND — The newly elected Cumberland County Charter Commission will meet on Thursday, Jan. 8, at 4 p.m. in the Peter J. Feeney Conference Room in the Cumberland County Court House.
The commission will hear a presentation from Knox County Commissioner Anne Beebe-Center about the challenges and opportunities of drafting a countywide charter. The public is encouraged to attend.
Knox and Aroostook counties are the only counties with voter-approved charters. The Cumberland County Charter Commission is intended to help county officials modernize the way they govern.
Commissioner Richard Feeney, of South Portland, said building a county charter is essential for the future of the county and its citizens.
“This committee will lead us to a new level of organization and more efficient and effective structure,” Feeney said.
The charter will establish rules under which county government can operate. County government provides regional services like E-911 and oversees the county jail, sheriff, district attorney, probate and registry of deeds.
Voters, however, have not supported efforts in the past to update the county charter. Most recently, Cumberland County residents in 2004 voted against forming a charter commission, but the legislature changed the law, allowing county commissioners to initiate a charter commission.
Former South Portland City Councilor Claude Morgan is interim chairman of the Charter Commission, which he said would likely elect officers and assign committees next week.
Morgan said he and other members of the Charter Commission will be listening to Beebe-Center to learn how citizen support was won in Knox County, which approved a new charter in 2004.
“We’ve been through this before and both times the public said no,” Morgan said. “We have to hear their experience presenting their case to the voters.”
Morgan said the charter process is a perfect opportunity for residents to weigh in on the role county government should play. While some may think county government is an unnecessary layer of government, others may like to strengthen its role.
“We want to hear what people think, pro and con,” Morgan said. “I see this as a commission that will be able to identify the things that do work and things that don’t work, and augment those things that do and to shrink or remove the things that don’t work.”
Morgan said that one of the major public relations challenges is simply to overcome what is generally a negative perception of county government. Most people mostly have unpleasant experiences with county officials, he said, whether it’s being pulled over by a sheriff, visiting or being booked at the county jail, attending court or other unpleasant matters with probate.
“Ultimately, it’s the will of the people to decide whether we have a charter or not,” Morgan said. “But if the other two commissions failed for lack of finding a way to get that buy-in from the constituents, we’d like to find that area that was not exercised at it’s best.”
Morgan said the commission will also take time to learn the history of the county and past attempts to create a new charter. To that end, the commission is expected to meet again on Jan. 15 from 7-9 p.m. at CTN
Studios, 516 Congress St., in Portland. Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland,
will give a presentation on the history of county government, including
a specific look at Cumberland County over the last 10 years.
Ultimately, Morgan said a county charter would define county government’s role, while maintaining a certain amount of flexibility, so another charter commissions won’t have to be formed.
“Ideally, you’d do one charter and it would last an eternity,” he said.
A proposed charter is expected to go to voters in 2010.