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.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco