A Voice from Cape – What's next for Fort Williams?

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Now that 67 percent of Cape voters have again rejected passenger vehicle parking fees at Fort Williams, how will town officials develop a plan to meet the long-term needs of the Fort? I’m hoping they don’t again make the mistake of disregarding the ideas, and the feelings, of the many Cape residents who love the Fort and want to be a part of ensuring it is properly cared for.

As I understand it, the current plan is for the Town Council to meet with the members of the Fort Williams Advisory Commission and the Fort Williams Charitable Foundation in a workshop session sometime this summer. The typical council workshop format does not allow for input from the general public. If the council follows the general workshop format, it will be starting off on the wrong foot and down the wrong road.

One of the top council goals for 2010 is to foster more effective citizen participation in local government, with re-engineering town policy development processes to provide for increased and earlier public input on key decisions one of its highest priorities. On the fees issue, in January the council held an “experimental” workshop allowing public input, which the council then proceeded to disregard. If the council is sincere in its expressed desire to encourage public participation in key decisions, there are some steps it can take.

Many Cape residents have interesting and innovative suggestions for Fort Williams, some of which were mentioned at the council workshop on fees. At a bare minimum, the council workshop to explore means of increasing revenues from Fort Williams should allow for public input and a give-and-take discussion with councilors and other official participants. Even better would be a public brainstorming session, similar to that held by the school board last fall to encourage public input on ways to deal with curtailment of state funds for education. The school board brainstorming session was highly successful, with about 90 participants generating over 100 separate ideas. As should be expected of brainstorming, the ideas ran the gamut of feasibility, but school board members and participants alike praised the process as valuable and rewarding.

Another way the council can increase public involvement on this issue is by ensuring the timing of any workshops and public hearings is conducive to public participation. Scheduling this sort of thing in July or August is a guarantee of poor public participation. That the council knows this is demonstrated by the dearth of council and other town committee meetings scheduled for those months. Politicians know this and allow their campaigns to enter a quieter phase during the summer. From the time school lets out until Labor Day, we Mainers take advantage of the glorious – and short – Maine summer. We schedule our vacations then and spend every spare minute enjoying Maine’s outdoor treasures. After Labor Day, we are ready to deal with business again, so that is when the council should schedule public meetings on the Fort Williams revenue issues. Similarly, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, most of us are occupied with family events and the holidays. Scheduling public hearings or council decisions on controversial issues during this time increases the chances they will slide by under the radar of most of us.

Fort Williams has been in need of additional funds for maintenance and capital needs for many years. Taking the time to plan properly with public input will not hurt Fort Williams and will probably help it. Witness the hastily approved and ill-advised parking fees plan. Fort Williams deserves better.

Mary Esposito grew up in South Portland and has lived in Cape Elizabeth for over 25 years. She is a doting grandmother, graduate of Harvard Law School, and former state legislator, she writes a blog about Cape Elizabeth town government, Cape Elizabeth Voice, at www.CapeVoice.WordPress.com. She can be reached at CapeVoice.WordPress@gmail.com.

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