By Paul Koenig
CHELSEA — Residents will have their first chance to comment on the town’s proposed charter Monday night before the charter commission revises it for a June vote at the annual Town Meeting.
The town voted 507–178 in the November 2011 election to establish a charter commission, partly in response to the ensuing events and confusion caused by former selectwoman Carole Swan’s arrest that February on fraud charges. The Monday public forum is being held at the Chelsea Elementary School at 6:30 p.m. A charter is essentially the constitution for a municipality, establishing the duties of town officials and rules for governing. Ben Smith, chairman of the charter commission and Board of Selectman, said Maine law provides the framework for municipalities, and a charter lets towns and cities have more say over specifics. “You basically establish local control over issues,” he said. Chelsea’s proposed charter won’t change the basic structure of its government, but it will provide clearer guidelines of how to conduct business and what is expected of its elected officials, Smith said. Many of the draft charter’s articles state that they are consistent with current practices in the town. Maine Municipal Association spokesman Eric Conrad estimated that 80 Maine cities and towns have charters. An MMA study last updated in 1999 found that 75 municipalities had charters, Conrad said. Chelsea’s charter commission consists of three members appointed by the Board of Selectmen and six elected in a special election in March 2012. The commission hosted a public forum last May before meeting about a dozen times to draft the charter. Smith said they also separated into subcommittees to write the sections. He said the committee members looked at about 10 other town charters to see what they liked or didn’t like about them and to incorporate some elements into Chelsea’s charter. After holding Monday’s public hearing, the commission will consider any feedback or suggestions from residents before finalizing the charter for a vote at the Town Meeting. Smith said the commission overwhelmingly supported the charter, but they want to have as much public input as possible. “We want to hear from people. We want people to come to the meeting, come to the meeting with questions, comments and their views,” he said. Swan was arrested on criminal charges in 2011 accusing her of receiving kickbacks from a contractor. Town officials said Swan’s case helped spark discussion about the need for a charter. “The major thing that I think spearheaded the discussion two years ago, when I first got on the board, was the Carole Swan situation,” Smith said. “At the time, the town was learning about the criminal charges and all that, we really didn’t have a mechanism of how to remove an elected officer or official.” Bail conditions banned Swan from conducting town business, but she refused to resign. Smith replaced her when her term expired in June 2011. The proposed charter outlines what constitutes a conflict of interest and forces any town official or municipal officer who hides the conflict or willfully violates the guidelines to forfeit the position. “By laying out the rules really clearly, a violation of the rules will be a lot easier to deter, a lot easier to identify,” Smith said. The proposed charter states that two selectmen are needed for a quorum to vote on any town business action. However, it would allow one selectman to conduct necessary business such as authorizing payment of heating bills or calling a special town meeting to fill vacant seats. Town Manager Scott Tilton said the charter addresses things that historically have been issues in Chelsea — for instance, when there’s little interest in filling elective positions. “Currently, if you get one or two write-in votes, you could be elected to a position that you may not have any interest in, maybe not have the experience or the time to fill,” he said. The proposed charter requires write-in candidates to receive at least 25 votes to be elected. The commission considered increasing the number of selectman to five from three but opted to stay with the latter because few people have sought office in recent years. The commission also proposed changing the structure of some committees and boards. “It’s a good document,” Tilton said. “It’s very thorough. I think the town will see that and support it.” Paul Koenig — 621-5663