Terming out term limits in Maine would be a sensible, corrective public policy …

SOMESVILLE – At some point after the elections, it would be a savvy move by the Mills administration to give Brian Hubbell a key role. For eight years, he has held the towns of Bar Harbor, Mount Desert and Lamoine together as a Democratic linchpin which counters much of the right-leaning parts of Congressional District 2.

In Bar Harbor alone the Democrats hold a 2,472-864 advantage over Republicans. There are 1,229 unaffiliated voters and it’s a good bet they vote with the Dems most of the time. The Green Party has 142 voters. In Mount Desert, there are 917 registered Democrats, 448 Republicans, 492 Unaffiliated, and 58 Green Party members, according to the secretary of state.

   
BRIAN HUBBELL

Thus, these two towns under Hubbell’s watch have become a juggernaut of Democratic voters. Along with like-minded folks in the Blue Hill area they form a formidable bloc which I have written about previously.

So what does Hubbell get for such a record? He gets to be “termed out,” a new addition to my developing Maine lexicon along with “shredder season” and “boat price” for lobsters.

Twenty-seven years after Maine became the first state to pass legislation on term limits for its statehouse and executive branch, it’s worth a second look at its original goal and whether we’re even close to achieving it.

What were the reasons for term limits at the time? It was 1992. Bill Clinton just got elected president. The Dems were on a high. Ross Perrot’s third-party candidacy took away enough votes for Clinton to win a plurality. But Maine still had its parochial concerns. There were legislative races which needed recounts. The ballots were locked up in a room in the State Office Building in Augusta. On Dec. 11, 1992, Kenneth P. Allen, an important aide to John L. Martin, speaker of the house, broke into that room. He was later charged with tampering with the vote and pleaded guilty.

That was enough to ignite a statewide exploration of whether longtime legislators like Martin corrupt the process and whether anyone should view a legislative job as a lifetime career.

But the Maine legislature added loopholes. The term limits were for only consecutive terms. One session out and you can come back, exactly what Paul LePage is threatening to do with the governorship.

John L. Martin, one of the original targets of the term-limit movement, is now poised to serve 50 years as a state legislator. After leaving the House in 1994, he was elected to the Senate in 2000 and served to 2008. In 2014, he was elected back to the state house.

Louis Luchini, state senator for the Quietside, is another example. Luchini, who has never returned any of my calls or emails, “termed out” of the House and is running for re-election in the senate. He could be a Maine legislature for at least 16 years if not for life.

Two years ago, the Bangor Daily News did an analysis of term limits.

BND quoted Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political science professor who has long opposed term limits, chiefly because he says they rob the Legislature of institutional knowledge.

“I can’t for the life of me imagine why voters or anyone for that matter would want to get rid of people who are experienced,” Brewer said. “If you were getting brain surgery, would you want someone with the most vast knowledge and the most experience? Of course you would.”

I’m not sure what his political persuasion is – but Brewer raised an interesting point.

No one I talked to in the inner circle of the Democratic of the Quietside is enthusiatic about any of the candidates running to replace Brian Hubbell. So how is that in our best interest? A longtime MDI party member said this about Lynne Williams who is running to replace Hubbell, “A disappointing successor to  the excellent Brian Hubbell — but will vote mostly the right way in Augusta if not provide the leadership one would like.”

Clearly, term limits have failed to achieve one of the major goals: To curtail career politicians. The BDN did an excellent job of reporting of the numerous state legislators who have learned to play the system. https://bangordailynews.com/2018/03/12/politics/after-25-years-of-term-limits-maine-still-has-plenty-of-career-politicians/

So what does that leave us? A system which ensures a reasonable percentage of mediocrity? Maine has a shallow pool of candidates. People like Brian Hubbell are rare. We should have a body politic which enables us to keep solid leaders.

I put the question to Hubbell, and here is what he had to say:

“Like many, I have mixed feelings about term limits.  Term limits, especially in a small state like Maine, structuralize a real commitment to the ideal of a citizen legislature.  This, I think, ensures that state legislators generally preserve a humility about their service — and the modest pay certainly reinforces that. I don’t think there can be any disagreement that term limits keep the Maine legislature younger, fresher, and more connected to local communities.
“The counter-argument, of course, is that experience builds skill and knowledge and that earned experience has value not only for constituents but also the state body politic.  I’m grateful for what I’ve learned and proud of my accomplishments in the legislature.  And, like most termed-out legislators, I continue to operate with the belief that I have yet more to offer public service from that experience.
“But I am also sufficiently self-aware to understand that success grows its own blind spots.  Because one plainly cannot please everyone in public office, legislators quickly learn to trust their own values and convictions. In significant ways that self-confidence can also grow into the greatest hazard of success as one begins to believe oneself generally in possession of the right answers. In many areas of life some ingrained doubt is fundamentally good.
“I hope that more opportunities in the greater arc of public service lie ahead for me and I’ll take them as I find them.  But really the legislature, is more a team sport of collective realization than a hero’s journey .. On balance, I think a rotation of players on and off the field probably keeps us all healthier and more effective in the long run.”

Always thoughtful. Always a gentleman. We’ll miss you, Brian. Don’t go too far away.

Will the pandemic jump-start MDI to forge a model community of the future

Ronald Musetti, left, and Adam Fraley, island-born friends who opened Nor’Easter Pound & Market in Northeast Harbor, where businesses are catering to a shrinking year-round population. The restaurant plans to close Nov. 1 through mid May but may try to stay open in the winter of 2021-22

SOMESVILLE  – To amplify its mission, the Island Housing Trust – one of my favorite charities –  drew a picture of an idyllic life on MDI for working families who otherwise couldn’t afford to buy a house here:

“On a January evening, a neighbor takes her dog for a walk. She passes homes lit with a soft yellow glow through curtains, and thinks about the house two doors down where her son’s teacher might be, at that moment, reading her son’s essay … When she turns onto Main Street, a couple leaving the hardware store calls out to friends heading into a restaurant for dinner. They make a date to meet up for brunch that weekend. Others are heading to a program at the library … Just down the street, a small group of neighbors are going into a town committee meeting. There is a general bustle in the town.”

The article in its annual report was appropriately labeled an aspirational “vision.” I couldn’t imagine any town on MDI which fits the above description.

Finding a restaurant within walking distance in January? How about finding a restaurant at all? Winter is MDI’s evil doppelganger – the opposite of its beguiling summer and fall. 

The island’s inability to sustain year-round businesses is well-known and historic.

And now a new twist – the pandemic.

What it will leave behind is anyone’s guess. Will it exacerbate the downward trend, or will there be a silver lining?

The massive 1947 fire transformed much of MDI from a rich person’s summer playground – Maine’s version of Newport, Rhode Island – to a middle-class tourist destination. In total, 17,188 acres burned – more than 10,000 acres of which was in Acadia National Park – and property damage exceeded $23 million in 1947 dollars.

Most of the denizens of “Millionaire’s Row” never rebuilt. The fire occurred at the end of a 50-year cycle of summering by the idle rich. At their peak in the Twenties, they drove the local economy by hiring cooks, wait staff, chamber maids, drivers, gardeners – people who lost their jobs when other industries collapsed.

The fire actually accelerated changes already underway. The wealthy Rusticators were joyless and spent after two world wars and the Great Depression. The fire rescued their effete scions from having to support the opulent “cottages.” Meanwhile, the G.I.’s coming back from the war were buying cars at the same time the interstate highway system was being built by Dwight Eisenhower. The motels dotting Route 3 replaced Millionaire’s Row. 

Will the pandemic evoke a similar transformation of the underlying fundamentals of MDI’s economy? Let’s look at some signals.

Signal 1: Some industries on the island are now operating like there never was a slowdown. One architect said he’s never been busier. The building industry is strong. Its only complaint is that there are not enough skilled workers to meet the demand.

Signal 2: Suddenly, August is on a roar for restaurants, inns, shops, cottages and boating. Some  businesses are reporting record sales for the month.

Signal 3. Second home owners are asking the question, “How long should we stay this year?” Followed by, “Could we live here year-round?” 

Signal 4: Lobster fishermen down island are facing the worst summer in a long time wrought by Trump’s tariffs and the pandemic robbing them of worldwide consumer demand. What is the future of this livelihood?

Signal 5: The water temperature in Long Pond hit 82 degrees this summer in some spots. It’s been hot for the second straight summer. The Gulf of Maine has one of the fastest ocean temperature increases in the world. Global warming in Maine is no longer in doubt.

All the advantages of living in densely populated Metros with their prized services are now circumscribed – and not by just a little. Why go back to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Manhattan or New Jersey, when there are no pro or college sports, theaters are dark, stores are hot spots of incubation, schools are in flux and restaurants continue with their social distancing?  How soon will it be until people feel comfortable boarding commuter buses and trains?

Builders and remodelers on MDI say there definitely is a desire from homeowners to make seasonal homes more habitable during the cold months. And new construction is exploding.

But where does that leave us? 

I put this question to Kathy Miller, who runs MountDesert365, which I heard about from Alf Anderson at the Bar Harbor Chamber, when I asked about efforts to make MDI more year-round.

She immediately started with the data:

Northeast Harbor has lost two-thirds of its year-round residents since the early Eighties – about 900 year-round residents then to about 300 to 350 today. This has turned the affluent village into a ghost town for about half the year. “Of the 654 homes in Northeast Harbor, only 254 are year-round,” Miller said.

She acknowledged that the summer owners do pay the same property tax as anyone, contributing an important chunk to the tax base. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

But there is a domino effect as the village turns more seasonal. “We used to have two of everything – multiple gas stations, more essential businesses. Last winter we didn’t have a single restaurant open.”

“And there is an enormous impact on the school population,” Miller said. The elementary school only has five “walkers,” those who actually live in Northeast Harbor. Most are bused in from Halls Quarry, Pretty Marsh, Somesville. The irony is palpable. As the town gets wealthier and more seasonal, small businesses are unable to sustain themselves with just a three-month burst of activity.

Four years ago, a small cruise ship slipped into Northeast Harbor and triggered  community wide introspection. While most residents and town officials were appalled at the invasion by sea, some local businesses welcomed the increased sales.

The Bangor Daily News reported at the time that Erin Gray, co-owner of the Pine Tree Market, said the day the ship Pearl Mist was in town, her store drew $3,500 in revenues, far more than its $2,000 daily average for that time of year. She said keeping grocery store going through the winter is a challenge.

The store loses money from November through April each year but the Grays keep it open because it serves as a community focal point.

I’ve never been an absolutist. It’s never been all one way or another for me. But I think the pandemic is an opportunity for MDI to take seriously these signals that in 20 years, the entire southern part of the island could lose its lobster fishing livelihood, and more businesses will fail or leave – not just because of the seasonal challenges but also because it’s difficult to hire front-line workers on the island. The lack of year-round population in Northeast Harbor may be extreme but it’s a trend across all MDI towns.

The flip side is that the winter weather on the island could become more moderate.  What if summer people became summer/fall people, or spring/summer/fall people? 

The legion of summer people have also learned that they can work remotely and work productively. Will the coming of 5G technology spawn a re-making of the American workplace? If so, could MDI be the bellwether for such a future?

Bill Hanley, principal of WMH Architects of Northeast Harbor, said the best book he read as an architecture student was “Penturbia: The Fifth Migration” by Jack Lessinger, a futurist at the University of Washington who predicted a shift to rural communities as the nation’s fifth major migration. Lessinger viewed the country in 50- to 60-year epochs in which the seeds for change take place, reach an apex and then fall. The seed for the last epoch was in unabridged consumer spending that started after 1960 and crashed in 2007. Since then, Lessinger wrote, we’ve been planting seeds for a new epoch, the rise of “responsible capitalism” under which consumers reject the mercantilism of suburbia for a rural setting where they can be more productive and consume less.

In a sequel, Lessinger added a specific date for the start of the rural epoch, “The Great Prosperity of 2020: Fall of “What’s in it for Me?”, Rise of “What’s in it for Us?” in which he said that 2020 was the turning point. That sequel came out in 2009. 

Whether any of this will come true is unknown, of course. But MDI would do well to remove any blinders and try to make sense of the signals.

To start, MDI must learn to be less siloed. The four towns have always acted in their self interest. That is an economic reality. But they also are pragmatic operators who will reach across borders to share essential services – fire, high school, public safety. But does it make sense for the Town of Mount Desert to have its own economic development director when half of its population shops and eats in Southwest Harbor and Bar Harbor?

The obvious opportunity for all is the collection of key economic data and to share it in a useful way. A few weeks ago I attempted an article on residential real estate and was plodding along in the blind as agent after agent could not tell me what recent sales prices were in their market. The towns should share one employee whose job is to collect in a timely manner:

  • Lodging data
  • Acadia attendance and reservations
  • Real estate sales and rentals
  • Boat prices for lobsters and other fish 
  • Building permits and total cost of construction
  • Housing cost for sales and rentals
  • Unemployment claims from the state by towns
  • Mortgage applications
  • Small business loan activity

This just a sample of data that exists, and if someone went through the trouble of gathering and publishing them in one easily accessible place, it would be a public service. Data is the life blood of economic development. For example, the state in January published its annual list of property valuations by town. Hancock County with just 55,000 residents has the third highest valuation in the state – a little under $14 billion – behind Cumberland and York. The four towns of MDI made up $5 billion of it, with $2.171 billion in Mount Desert, $1.713 billion in Bar Harbor, $665,000,000 in Southwest Harbor and $530,000,000 in Tremont.

From that data, we may ask the question of whether there are other ways to tackle the affordable housing crisis, the No. 1 crippler of small businesses here.

With the right mix of town policy, business support, private investment and spirited citizenry, we have an opportunity to create an even more special place to call home. So indulge in my quixotic whimsy for a moment.

The town of Northampton, Mass. has a full-time grant writer to seek funding from foundations, federal government, state government and even international funding sources like the United Nations, for projects aimed at making Northampton a more livable and compassionate community.

If MDI towns can agree on some basic principles of need – housing is the first that comes to mind – there are endless sources to tap to help fund a project plan, strategic thinking, or even horizon-watching ideas. We are blessed to have two institutions expert at writing grant applications, Jackson Labs and College of the Atlantic, which may help find this person. I would peg the cost of such a shared employe to be split by the towns according to their valuation as published above. There are other organizations poised to pitch in. The Island Housing Trust could be the program manager for such an initiative. MountDesert365 already has a running start and lots of expertise.

Lastly, I would engage Bar Harbor Bank and Trust, where I bank, and First National Bank where ideas about economic development already are germinating. They possess the deepest knowledge about the island economy and would be critical to any island-wide effort.

I will be long gone when the eventual vision of the Island Housing Trust is actualized. But who knows? MDI could be the place my New York-based millennial son will someday call home and raise a family.

 

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