Do you know what our county commission does? How about who our county commissioner is or what that person does for us on a regular basis? Sadly, I don’t think many can answer those questions easily. We don’t hear anything about what’s happening on the county level nor how we can participate in the decision-making process. This is a major problem. The County Commission shouldn’t be Maine’s lost level of government.
For County Commissioners, it seems as if the lack of awareness of what they do has translated into a lack of effort. No awareness translates into no accountability. No accountability means they can skirt by without doing much. They have a position and title for 4 years per term without term limits, getting paid the same as our state lawmakers, yet we don’t see or hear from them until they are up for re-election.
County Commissioners should hold monthly office hours, virtual or otherwise, to give you an opportunity for direct feedback. They should write monthly columns, providing in-depth reports on key issues and ideas. They should post on social media, record videos, and send out email newsletters explaining decisions. They should update the county website, where most of the county commissioner information is currently left blank. They should be visible and actively volunteer in the communities they serve at local events. This is public service 101. These are simple items that could be done today as a bare minimum of what they should be doing and yet it’s not happening.
The system is also stacked against the public and actually limits your participation. Case in point: when meetings are scheduled. County Commission meetings are held at 4:30PM in the afternoon in Alfred. Meaning if a working Mainer would like to attend, they would have to take off work much before that, just to make it down. Why are they not held in the evening like most other public meetings? Even an hour later would make much more sense. While there is a video posted later, there is no live stream on social media, further limiting real time engagement. They hold two meetings a month. There is no reason they can’t set a meeting time more in line with municipal public meetings. There is a reason the same one person testifies during public comment or there’s simply no comments at all. It’s not for a lack of interest. The public isn’t being engaged in the process.
Over the summer, the county solicited feedback on how to spend $40 million in one-time money coming in from the Federal government. They held two public hearings, smack dab in the middle of the day at 10AM for one and 2PM for the other, in Sanford. Good for Sanford residents and for those who don’t have to work during the day, but what about our area? Let’s not leave a critical population center in the cold when it comes to spending our tax dollars and this one-time significant investment. There should’ve been at least one public hearing in each corner of the county, in each commission district, including our area and in the evening, to make these discussions more accessible to the entire public.
There should’ve also been a lot more localized publicity around soliciting public feedback on such an important initiative. At a minimum, each county commissioner should’ve held virtual forums in their districts to get input beyond the official public hearings. Nothing like that was done.
To add insult to injury, York County was sued over the summer by a news organization for a lack of disclosure and transparency. Reporters shouldn’t have to sue to get access to public records and information. The former journalist in me is both angered and appalled at that. Where’s the outcry and oversight from our County Commissioners? The buck ultimately stops with them.
I brought up these concerns directly to our County Commissioners during their recent meeting. Instead of just taking my constructive feedback, one by one the commissioners decided to make excuses and even berate me from the dais. It was incredibly inappropriate and very sad to see. What’s the point of providing public comment if you aren’t going to listen to the public? I was literally told if working Mainers want to attend their meetings, they should take off time from work to be there. Period. No sympathy. No willingness to consider alternatives. The fact that the County Commission doesn’t even think there is a problem with public awareness and participation, is in fact the problem.
I’ve long believed we should expect more from our elected officials than just simply continuing the status quo. Elected officials should go above and beyond the call of duty and the bare minimum responsibilities outlined on paper. They should be visible in the communities they serve and work to engage you at every step of the decision-making process. You should feel heard and respected.
The lack of public awareness of what’s happening in county government has clearly given County Commissioners a blank check and subsequently created major complacency. We deserve better. We deserve a county government that’s more accessible, more transparent, and more engaging. We deserve a county government that’s accountable to us, the people they are supposed to serve.
A year ago this month, I made one of the hardest decisions of my life, to drop out of my re-election campaign for State Senate. Ultimately, it was the right decision at the time given my job situation and what was right for my family. While I’ll admit it’s been hard not being in the fight and not being in a role to help pass legislation, it’s given me time to evaluate other important ways of making a difference while being able to work fulltime (something that’s hard to do while in the legislature).
Based on my recent 8-year stint in the legislature, I’ve recently been appointed to two state commissions by my former colleague, Senate President Troy Jackson.
The first appointment is a 3-year term on the Maine Right to Know Advisory Committee. This committee is an on-going advisory council with oversight authority and responsibility to make recommendations to the Governor, Legislature, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, and local governments regarding our Freedom of Access laws.
Throughout my legislative career, I’ve fought for a more transparent and accessible government to increase accountability and public engagement in the decision-making process. As the chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, I made this a top priority. The public and the press deserve to know what our government is doing and how they arrive at decisions.
As a former reporter and with a background in journalism, I’m fully committed to ensuring we maintain the integrity of our Freedom of Access laws through best practices in providing the public and the press access to records and proceedings. I believe that the press should play a critical role as a government watchdog, to hold leaders accountable for what they say and do. It’s one of the main reasons I started down a path of journalism to begin with. I wanted to ask the tough questions no one was asking and push for more public participation in the process.
The second appointment is being named a Maine-Canadian Legislative Advisory Commissioner. The purpose of this commission is to strengthen the relations between the legislature and our legislative counterparts in Canada. This will be done through engagement in regional cooperation via economic, cultural, and educational exchanges. Our area relies heavily on Canadian tourism to benefit our local small businesses. As commissioner, I hope to bring about further awareness and attention around how we can work together across the border for mutual benefit. I met several Canadian colleagues while studying down at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government that I will use to benefit our state in this role.
Looking forward to continuing my public service in this capacity by getting back into the arena, fighting for our shared values, and keeping you informed after over 6 months since leaving the legislature. For me, public service isn’t about a title or a position. It’s a lifestyle of helping and lifting up your fellow neighbors in your community, state, and country. Service is in my blood. It’s a part of who I am, no matter where the path takes me. I deeply appreciate so many of you reaching out over the past year encouraging me to stay involved and to run for various offices. It means a lot to me and Eduard. My connection with our community gives me hope for the future and inspires me to continue to serve. This is where my heart is.
Maine has the sixth-highest average student debt in the entire country with the average student incurring over $33,000 for their college experience.
When I was in the legislature, this was a constant topic amongst younger members on both sides of the aisle. It was a topic that united us, and we were able to work on bipartisan initiatives like an expansion of the Opportunity Maine Tax Credit and increases in the state grant. Getting straddled with so much debt early in life, prevented many people I know from delaying major life milestones like marriage or buying a house. Add in major economic downturns and it’s a recipe for long term effects on many people’s ability to provide for themselves and acquire wealth, let alone the impact it has on our economy and society as a whole.
Education is an important pathway to success. It doesn’t have to be college. It could come in the form of training for the trades, which have fields in very high demand. It could be a professional certificate program to get your foot in the door. There are lots of ways of leveraging education to verify some value-added aspect of a job or career. I’m a big believer in investing in your knowledge and skills throughout your life aka lifelong learning. Hence why I recently completed a post-baccalaureate degree program through the University of Maine system. You truly never stop learning and the time you take to advance yourself pays dividends in many ways even beyond simply a paycheck.
Back in 2013, I founded a nonprofit organization that provided college scholarships to deserving students making a difference above and beyond what is required of them. Today, I continue this work through the Chenette Scholarship Fund. Over the years we’ve fundraised and received grants for, scholarships totaling over $6,000 in our area. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of doing and I look forward to continuing to provide more scholarships in the years ahead. We have two scholarships based in Saco and Old Orchard Beach.
Olivia Hand of Saco is this year’s Spirit of Service Scholarship recipient. Olivia has been a compassionate leader in the classroom, on the field, and throughout the community. I’ve seen up close her dedication to putting the needs of others first without regard to credit or attention. While a student at TA, Olivia volunteered with a local food pantry, assisted with various community events as a member of the National Honor Society, was an Honorary Senate page, and served as the Varsity Volleyball Captain. She even earned the Presidential Service Award for Community Service. Olivia will attend Stonehill College this Fall.
Garrett Dupee of Old Orchard Beach is our OOB High School recipient of our Future Entrepreneur Scholarship, founded to empower new small business owners. Garrett steps up to the plate to lift up those around him while setting an example for his fellow peers. He is someone with an entrepreneurial eye towards the future and I know he will achieve anything he sets his mind to. While a student at OOB High, Garrett was on a fundraising committee for Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital juvenile diabetes fund, volunteered with Saco Bay Rotary and the Ride for Autism, was a member of the National Technical Honor Society, as well as coached and announced various youth sports. He even earned a full semester of college credits by completing a small business management certificate from York County Community College. Garrett will attend Thomas College this Fall to obtain degrees in business administration. He hopes to own a small business in the future.
Another scholarship I helped create as a board member, is the Saco Main Street Scholarship at Thornton Academy. This year, we awarded it to Megan Montoya of Saco. Megan graduated Summa Cum Laude and is headed to the University of Richmond in the fall to pursue Global Studies. She dedicates her free time to the community and volunteers with groups such as the Salvation Army, Honor Flight Maine, the Ironman Races, and with the Pony Club at Carlisle Academy Integrative Therapy & Sports.
Every year I am in awe of the graduates from our local schools. They are the next generation of leaders, but they aren’t waiting around to take action or help others. They are stepping up for their communities now and in the process setting a positive example to their fellow peers on how to be of service. It is my hope that with the scholarships that we provide, I can help play a small role in encouraging youth to reach their greatest potential and follow their passion.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco