Task Forces and Working Groups

from Maine Townsman, May 2004)
By Kate Dufour, Legislative Advocate, MMA

It is a common practice for the Legislature to establish summertime working group projects in the odd-number years, covering the period of time between the first and second regular legislatives sessions, often focused on carryover bills.  It is less common for those types of working groups to be established during the even-numbered years, to study issues between the retirement of one legislature and the election of the next.  However, several study commissions, task forces and other types of working groups will be meeting over the next several months. These working groups include the permanent or semi-permanent, legislatively-created Intergovernmental Advisory Group and the Community Preservation Advisory Committee, as well as certain ad hoc working groups that were created over a year ago to work on one issue and have now convinced the Legislature to extend their life another year to take on additional projects.  

What follows is a description of the municipally-related work groups that will be meeting throughout the summer and fall months.  Any municipal official interested in learning more about any of the efforts described below should contact the MMA staff person listed after the working group description.   Staff can be reached by phone (1-800-452-8786) or by e-mail (addresses provided below).

Adult Entertainment Establishments

P.L. 2003, c. 595 will allow communities to adopt an ordinance which regulates adult entertainment establishments even if the community has not adopted a comprehensive plan.  The Business Research and Economic Development Committee has requested that MMA, the State Planning Office and the Attorney General’s Office collaborate in the crafting of a model/sample ordinance.

For more information, see the description of LD 1801, in the Business, Research and Economic Development section of the New Laws article, or, contact Jeff Austin (jaustin@memun.org.)

Automobile Junkyards

Last session, the Legislature enacted P.L. 2003, c. 312 which altered the rules regarding the local regulation of automobile junkyards.  While the rules generally simplify the issue and give municipalities more options, some flaws in the new scheme have been identified and need to be reviewed.

For more information, contact Jeff Austin (jaustin@memun.org.)

Community Preservation Advisory Committee

P.L. 2003 c. 641 is a pared-back version of LD 1900 which was offered by the Community Preservation Advisory Committee and deals with planning issues.  The items that were taken out of the legislation require further review and may be offered again in the next session.

The items to be reviewed are:

1. Should the state “sunset” a finding of consistency for comprehensive plans?  Some would like to see the finding of consistency expire after 10-15 years. 

2. Should state agencies be forced to comply with local zoning if the zoning ordinance has not been approved by the State Planning Office?  The current law is vague on this point.  The Department of Transportation, which does so many projects in hundreds of towns each year would like to review the local permitting issue.

MMA, State Planning Office and interested state agencies will meet to discuss these issues.  For more information see the description of LD 1900 in the Natural Resources section of the New Laws article, or contact Jeff Austin (jaustin@memun.org.)

General Assistance

In the First Regular Session, LD 1066 was submitted for the purpose of increasing the size of the benefit provided to General Assistance recipients at a cost to the state of over $2 million annually.  In response to the bill, the Committee on Health and Human Services directed the Department of Human Services (DHS) to convene a working group to find a less costly alternative.   During the summer and fall of 2003, DHS, municipal General Assistance (GA) administrators, advocates for low-income people and the Maine Municipal Association (MMA) developed a plan that would meet the goal of LD 1066, while reducing the fiscal note to approximately $1 million.  The working group proposal sought to increase the temporary maximum level of assistance provided under the General Assistance program from 110% of fair market rents to 120% of the fair market rents.  The increase to the program would have been funded solely with state revenues.

While the members of the Health and Human Services Committee were generally supportive of the working group compromise, the state’s financial limitations made enactment of the legislation impossible.  Instead, the Committee directed the Department of Human Services to convene another study committee.  As enacted, the committee with the same make-up is charged with the tasks of: 1) determining if the administration of the General Assistance program can be simplified and access to services improved; 2) examining the potential for regional general assistance offices; 3) maximizing federal housing programs to assist low-income residents; and 4) improving the state’s collection of data regarding the General Assistance program. 

For more information, contact Kate Dufour (kdufour@memun.org). 

Electronic Waste / CRT

P.L. 2003 c. 661 establishes a recycling program for cathode ray tubes.  The details of the recycling program need to be established by the Department of Environmental Protection.  Issues such as the number of consolidation points and handling/storage requirements must be resolved. 

For more information, see the description of LD 1892 under Natural Resources in the New Laws article or contact Jeff Austin (jaustin@memun.org.)

Energy Codes

PL 2003, c. 645 directs the Public Utilities Commission to recommend an energy code that could be available for adoption by municipalities.  Municipalities are not mandated to adopt the code and any existing code is not preempted.  However, it will be the only energy code available for adoption and even after adoption it may not be amended locally.

Since the state also enacted PL 2003, c. 580 which establishes the International Code Council’s Residential Code and Business codes as the voluntary building codes in Maine, it is all but certain that the PUC will recommend the ICC’s energy code.

For more information, contact Jeff Austin (jaustin@memun.org.)

Regionalization

Whether called regionalization, mutual aid or common sense, one of the goals of this year’s Legislature was to find mechanisms for encouraging municipalities, counties, schools and regional entities to work together to provide governmental services more efficiently and effectively. 

As a result of that goal, the fifteen-member Joint Select Committee on Regionalization and Community Cooperation was created.  The ad hoc Committee met for several months and developed a bill, LD 1930, to promote intergovernmental cooperation and cost savings.   An element of that enacted bill creates the 17-member Intergovernmental Advisory Group (IAG) on which municipalities hold three seats.  Other members of the group include legislators, state agency representatives, county officials, school officials, representatives of regional governments (e.g., councils of governments, water districts, etc.), and representatives from the nonprofit and for-profit private sector.  As explained in greater detail in the New Laws section of this edition of the Townsman, the ultimate task of the IAG is to find ways to reduce the duplication and improve efficiency in the delivery of governmental services. 

If you would like more information or are interested in participating on the IAG, contact Kate Dufour (kdufour@memun.org). 

Right to Know

In November 2002 the Maine Press Association (MPA) and other media groups conducted a “compliance audit” of Maine’s Freedom of Access laws.  The audit involved sending volunteers into municipal offices, police departments and school superintendents offices seeking information about the expense accounts of chief elected officials, police logs and the contracts of superintendents, all of which is considered public information under Maine law.  As a result of that audit, the press coalition was successful in convincing the Legislature of the need to study and find solutions for improving compliance with Maine’s Freedom of Access Laws.  In the First Regular Session the 16-member Committee to Study Compliance with Maine’s Freedom of Access Laws, of which MMA is a member, was created.       

As a result of the study committee’s work, the Legislature enacted LD 1957 (for a detailed explanation see the New Laws section of this edition of the Townsman).   Included in the Act are statutory changes prescribing the process that must be used before any board can enter into an executive session, clarifying that a public entity cannot charge a fee for the mere inspection of a public record, and requiring that the charges for photocopying a public record are “reasonable.”

In addition to enacting some of the Committee’s recommended statutory changes to “improve” and “clarify” the Right to Know laws, the Legislature also approved an extension of the Committee’s final reporting date from December 15, 2003 to November 3, 2004.   Over the next several months, the study committee will:

1. Recommend whether the personal home contact information of public employees should be confidential and not subject to disclosure;

2. Review the fees charged by agencies and officials for copies of public records and determine whether a cap on fees is appropriate and, if so, recommend the level of such a cap on copying fees;

3. Review the issues surrounding appropriate charges for remote electronic access to public records;

4. Recommend whether the court should have discretion to award attorney’s fees to a party denied access to records or proceedings and, if so, under what circumstances;

5. Recommend whether the enforcement procedures of Maine’s freedom of access laws, including the imposition of monetary penalties, should be modified;

6. Explore options for providing staffing assistance for the legislative review of exceptions to the definition of “public records”;

7. Review the issues surrounding the extent to which voice mail and electronic mail are public records and determine if statutory changes are necessary to ensure public access to public records;

8. Review the issues surrounding the conduct of public proceedings through electronic means and the methods of ensuring public access to such proceedings;

9. Review the options for standardization and clarification of Maine law contained in a report on that subject to the Legislature prepared by the Office of Policy and Legal Analysis;

10. Review the efforts of the Department of the Attorney General to provide public access assistance to the public and entities covered by Maine’s freedom of access laws; and

11. Review any other public access issues that may improve compliance with Maine’s freedom of access laws and enhance public access to public proceedings .

Contact Geoff Herman (gherman@memun.org) or Richard Flewelling (rflewelling@memun.org) for more information.

Stormwater

The Department of Environmental Protection has begun the rulemaking process for a review of the stormwater regulations regarding rivers and streams (Chapter 500).  The Legislature decided to postpone any related statutory changes until the proposed rule revisions have been more clearly developed.

It appears that the new rule will expand the scope of the stormwater program to more areas of the state than it was otherwise going to cover.  It also appears to simplify the thresholds for when the stormwater rules will apply and harmonize the thresholds with other related regulations.

For more information, contact Jeff Austin (jaustin@memun.org.)