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.
It’s been a long year and a half. We’ve had to hunker down in quarantine, learn to wear masks everywhere we go, and keep our distance from loved ones. Aside from those we lost during the pandemic, we also lost our sense of connectivity and community with one another.
Local, family focused events prior to the pandemic, brought us together organically. There is something about seeing your extended neighbors that makes you appreciate where you live. It grounds you, connects you, and lifts your spirit.
According to the CDC, being outside, where social distancing is easier, reduces the chance of spreading or catching the virus. The breeze disperses airborne virus particles and sunlight has been found to help reduce spread as well. Moreover, with high vaccination numbers in Maine, we have even more of an opportunity to resume some of our previous activities that resembles a greater sense of normalcy. While we can’t lower our guard, smaller, outdoor events returning this summer, seem to be a great way to safely to get out of the house and engage with our neighbors again.
Since last March, we’ve seen how the global pandemic has impacted not just our country as a whole, but our neighbors right down the street.
While there has been direct economic fallout attributed squarely on the pandemic, it also highlighted the long term, systemic needs in our community that have been there all along.
It’s easy, if you don’t see the need every day yourself within your own household or family, to have an out-of-sight out-of-mind mentality. Having grown up with a single a mom relying on various assistance programs, it’s something that’s hits close to home. In fact, I still have one of the ‘food coupons’ or food stamps as a reminder of where I came from and how easy it is to fall behind no matter who you are or where you come from.
As I enter a new decade this month (turning 30!), it got me reflecting back on some of the important life lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Be true to yourself. Easier said than done right? For many of us, finding out who we are is a tall order. It takes a lot of trial and error to know exactly what drives you, what your beliefs are, and what kind of person you want to be. It’s easy to look outward to other people and compare yourself to them. Imposter syndrome is what the professionals call it, I call it unfair judgement on your self-worth. You can’t compare someone else’s journey with your own. Someone else’s success isn’t a reflection of your inadequacy. Your path is yours alone. Own it. Embrace it. Celebrate it.
Use your heart as your compass. In other words, do what makes you happy. Life is too short for negative energy, unnecessary drama, and for spending your time with people who don’t care about you. The same goes for selecting a major, a career path, etc. You want to do something with meaning and a sense of purpose. You might not start out doing what you love, but always aim towards what fills you up excitement. Spend time listening to yourself. Follow your inner voice and trust your instincts. When you tune out the noise around you, you’d be surprised how much you have the answers.
Value the people you care about. At the end of the day what you are left with is relationships. Relationships with a spouse, family, friends, co-workers, etc. Life gets busy and crazy. With everything going on it’s easy to set yourself into autopilot and take for granted the people around you. These relationships are more important to your overall wellbeing and health than you may realize. Prioritize them. What’s not important? The individuals on your Facebook or Twitter feeds who you can’t even remember the names for. Their judgement, their comments, their impression of your life isn’t worth your time and energy. Instead of arguing with someone online, give your friend from college a call or video chat with a relative across the country. It will lift your spirits.
Work isn’t your identity. We live in a society with a work until you drop culture. We value when we are too busy for life things in order to prioritize our jobs. We are attached to work even when we are home, with email at the convenience of our fingertips and our phones. The pandemic has highlighted a need to refocus on a work life balance and taking time out for ourselves. When your identity is wrapped up entirely in a job title, you are left with nothing when you no longer have that title. While not the case with every employer, you have to remember you are replaceable. The moment you leave or are let go, life goes on. They’ll find someone else. You are so much more than a particular job or career. Don’t give yourself entirely to the job without leaving room to live.
Lift others up behind you. For me, success is driven by who you are grooming to take your place one day. The more you mentor, empower, and assist the next ‘you’, whether it be in a job, nonprofit group, or elected position, the more you are leaving the world better than you found it. We should constantly be thinking about lifting up the next generation. As I always told student groups when I was in the legislature, I want you to replace me.
As I reflect back on my 8 years of service in the Maine legislature, I think about the legacy I leave behind not just for the communities I serve, but for the next group of leaders that come after me.
The core of my service centered around the concept of having a government not beholden to special interests, corporations, or lobbyists. And probably most important of all, their money. I was able to pass into law a ban on lobbyist contributions, an end to profiting off political contributions through the use PACs as personal slush funds, a true 1 year ban on former lawmakers becoming lobbyists, clear definitions around caucus PACs to ensure the Ethics Commission can enforce the rules, and a ban on Clean Election candidates running PACs. At least half of those initiatives received bipartisan support, even unanimous support. Something that increasingly is becoming harder to accomplish given how polarizing our politics have become. These wins represent significant campaign finance reform that would have never happened if I wasn’t in Augusta fighting the good fight.
This has been one of the most divisive elections in recent memory. We’ve seen headline after headline of attacks on our democratic intuitions and the integrity of our elections questioned without facts or even a shred of evidence. This has highlighted an important need to educate the next generation of voters, advocates, and leaders about how their own government and our elections work.
Civics education produces individuals who are more likely to volunteer in their community, register to vote, vote consistently, speak up for issues they care about, and be more productive members of society as a whole.
On the flip side, a lack of education and outreach to youth about government tends to create disengagement and a lack of understanding of the impact an individual can have not only in the selection of their elected officials, but on the issues impacting their lives. This has long ranging complications for our state’s future standing.
Since my time on Maine State Board of Education and throughout my 8 years in the state legislature, I’ve visited classrooms not just in my district, but statewide, to illustrate the legislative process and show how youth can make their voices heard. I even published a children’s book entitled, The Great Whoopie Pie Debate: A Kids’ Guide to the Maine Legislature, to make learning about government a little more interactive for young students.
It’s one the reasons I founded the Maine Democracy Project, an organization committed to promoting civics education and increasing youth voter registration statewide. Recently, I’ve partnered up CivXNow, a project of iCivics, to join the nation’s largest cross-partisan coalition to promote civic learning in education. I also serve on their state policy task force, working with colleagues across the country about how to bring civic projects and best practices to Maine.
Civics education is an often-overlooked responsibility of the Secretary of State’s office. We have a unique opportunity to build on Secretary Dunlap’s good work when it comes to student outreach and engagement and make it a greater priority…
Revamp Existing Student Engagement Programs
The student mock election needs to be revamped to ensure 100% school participation and increase the effectiveness of the overall experience. This could be done through the use of more digital experiences. We also heard that most schools can’t participate in the student mock election day festivities in Augusta. Finding alternative ways to engage schools and students will be critical to increasing the effectiveness of the program.
The 8th Grade Citizenship Award is a great way of inspiring confidence and encouraging civic involvement as students head off to high school. Problem is, not every school participates or puts forward a nominee. We need to change that. We need a proactive office to ensure every school participates and finds a deserving student to receive recognition. Also, the recipient should get a personalized message from the Secretary of State and the list of recipients should be sent to the media much like honor roll lists to recognize their achievement.
There is a program that was started from the Connecticut Democracy Center that we should bring to Maine. It’s called Kid Governor and it’s a civics based experiential scenario for 5th graders. They research the issues, run for ‘Kid Governor’, and vote for their favorite candidate. The individual then spends time in office helping schools with an issue important to them. This gets kids involved in politics in a safe way and helps them learn about how to select candidates based on issues. It takes what they are learning about government in the textbook to a whole new level. I have already made contact with the organization and have started the process to see about bringing this innovate civics education program to our state.
The Secretary of State’s office should have a strong partnership with the Maine Department of Education to start recognizing local schools and districts who are committed to educational excellence when it comes to civic learning and the establishment of high-quality civic education programs. Other states have started an innovative recognition program called Democracy Schools and we should bring this to Maine. As a former member of the Maine State Board of Education, this is in my wheelhouse and can easily build this out with Commissioner Makin.
High school Voter Registration Drive Competitions
Let’s find fun ways to empowering high school students to register their peers to vote. Let’s work with local districts, town clerks, and student councils to conduct voter registration competitions to see who can register the most students. The winning high school in each county could get a prize/recognition.
College Student Voting Rights
This past election, we had reports of confusion at many of our college campuses regarding college student voting rights. Many of you signed onto my letter to the Secretary of State’ office to clear it up. We need ongoing outreach to every college within the state of Maine to ensure our students understand their voting rights and encourage participation in our politics. This can be done with yearly visits, virtual or otherwise, speaking to the political groups on campuses and student organizers to help educate and spread the word.
Grants for State House Visits
While there are some 4th grade classes that do visit the state house and experience state government in person, most do not and cannot. Usually, the barriers are financial and/or logistical in nature. We should look at how we could provide grants for state house visits to schools that have a tough time pulling it off. Students who page in the House and Senate and visit the state house, end up pointing to those experiences later in life as impactful. We even have a few legislators serving in office who were former student pages. Talk about a good return on our investment!
Reaching Gen Z
As more and more Gen Z youth become of voting age, it’s critically important that the Secretary of State’s office be able to reach them. Currently, the office isn’t on Instagram which is more heavily used by this age bracket than Facebook and even Twitter. We need to create an Instagram for the Secretary of State’s office to keep current in reaching all possible Maine voters.
Have your own ideas to promote civics and student engagement at the Secretary of State’s office? Reach out!
Justin Chenette is serving his fourth term in the State Legislature, currently representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton in the Senate. He is the chair of the Government Oversight Committee, co-chair of the Democracy Reform Caucus, a member of the Environment and Natural Resources and Ethics Committees, and serves on the Maine Climate Council’s Coastal & Marine Working Group. He is also a Citizen Trade Policy Commissioner. Outside the Legislature, Justin is the owner of a digital marketing firm, president of the Maine Democracy Project, vice president of Saco Main Street, and author of “The Great Whoopie Pie Debate.” Follow updates at justinchenette.com.
Civics education is critical to a functioning Democratic society.
When I served as the first student member on the Maine State Board of Education, it was something that I advocated for in the curriculum. Students should know how their own government works. Students should know how and why to register to vote. Students should know the fundamentals of our political system. This instills a solid foundation of recognizing your civic responsibility, not just your rights, in our country.
Maine government should work for all Maine people — not just those who can afford the best lobbyist. Since I was first elected to the Legislature, I’ve been working to strengthen our ethics laws and policies to ensure that lawmakers are accountable to you, and that we truly are a government of, by and for the people.
Last year, I was proud to present and pass a package of bills to stop the revolving door of lawmakers becoming lobbyists and prevent politicians from profiting off political contributions through PACs. This was accomplished with unanimous bipartisan support. It showed when you have a good idea and the public is behind you, leaders can put differences aside to do what is right over what is easy. Now legislators will have to wait at least a year before they would be able to take up paid lobbying of any kind and legislators and candidates will be banned from using PACs as personal or business slush funds.
This year, the governor signed into law two additional measures I introduced to tackle lobbyist influence and ethics enforcement.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco