People participating in the activities of government is essential to good government and the delivery of essential services. This is particularly true of local government. Citizens can get involved in five basic ways:
Make your voice heard at hearings
All local government decisions are made only after public discussion at so-called public hearings, which are by law posted seven days in advance of the hearing. Hearings are not to be confused with public meetings. While the former are expressly held to gather public opinion, meetings are not.
While the law may guarantee the right to attend such meetings (board and council meetings), it does not guarantee the right to participate in them. However, there is often a time set aside during these meetings for public comment.
Under the Home Rule provisions in state law, people may petition for a referendum vote on any matter pertaining solely to their community. For example, a group of people in a community might want to amend the town charter and revise the form of government. But despite the pleas of many citizens at their meetings, the selectmen have refused to act on their request. The citizens, therefore, can have a legal petition drawn up. If they obtain the required number of signatures of eligible voters on the petition, the selectmen must set a date for a vote on the question. Under state law, the number of signatures must be equal to at least 10 percent of the votes cast in the town in the last gubernatorial election. A public hearing must be held at least ten days prior to the vote. If a sufficient number of people vote for the proposal, the citizens have the form of government they want for their community.
If people want to petition for a referendum vote on a matter pertaining to their school administrative district, the petition must be signed by at least 10 percent of the voters in the entire district voting in the last gubernatorial election.
Some citizens argue that voting at the open town meeting is intimidating and they would rather stay away than raise their hands. One solution to this is to request that a written ballot be taken on a particular item in the town warrant. While it may take more time than an open show of hands, it will be a more accurate count. Some meetings have gone so far as to rent electronic ballot counters in anticipation of written ballot requests and to encourage them, in an effort to speed up the process.
Written ballots aside, citizens may also amend or change articles before they are voted upon at the open meeting. However, they may not amend ordinances; ordinances must be accepted or rejected as is. The time for proposing amendments to proposed ordinances is at the public hearing. And when a dollar figure appears in the article itself, the amount can be accepted or reduced but it may not be increased.
Be it volunteering to serve on the planning board, recreation or budget committee or on the volunteer fire department, volunteers play a critical role in the running of local government. While some of the boards - such as the planning board - require considerable knowledge of the law, you should know that there are workshops and manuals available to your town from the Maine Municipal Association to assist you in getting up-to-speed on the subject. Other boards and committees - such as the budget committee - just require common sense and an open mind.
In recent years, acknowledging that people cannot commit to attending regular meetings over a period of months and years, some municipalities have sought volunteers to assist them with specific projects, such as editing the municipal newsletter or developing a computer program for managing town finances or landscaping around the town office. If Roberts Rules of Order are your forte, you may be interested in volunteering to moderate your town meeting.
The possibilities for volunteering are endless.