Governor misses the boat with port authority bill veto

No job too small? Governor Paul LePage stepped into a local debate about a port authority for the town of Bar Harbor, vetoing a bill that would have allowed town voters to decide whether they want one or not.

Interest in the authority extends beyond Bar Harbor. Residents of the towns around Frenchman Bay have weighed in due to their concerns over possible construction of a pier to accommodate cruise ships near the old Bluenose ferry terminal. But it was the voters of Bar Harbor who would have had the say in whether the port authority was created.

That was not for lack of trying on the part of Rep. Ralph Chapman (Brooksville) and Sen. Shenna Bellows (Kennebec), who submitted amendments to the bill that would have allowed residents of 11 other towns around the bay to vote on the port authority, with a threshold of six (in addition to Bar Harbor) having to support it to make it so. The amendment failed.

An additional amendment would have shifted the authority to appoint one port authority member from the Bar Harbor Town Council to the superintendent of Acadia National Park. That failed too, the bill passed, and on March 6 the Governor vetoed it.

In his veto letter, the Governor called a port authority for Bar Harbor “an unnecessary municipal bureaucracy whose purpose is to deflect accountability from the town.” In addition, the Governor maintains, “Maine has several coastal towns … where cruise ship traffic is handled by the municipalities and has been for years.”

Well, yes, but no other town has anything close to the number of ships that Bar Harbor hosts. The heart of Vacationland, Bar Harbor must manage the challenge of gearing up every spring to function as one of Maine’s largest cities all summer. And that was before we had cruise ships.

There are 181 cruise ship visits scheduled for 2018. Some of them carry more passengers and crew than the town’s 5,000-ish residents. The trend is ever bigger, and there are some in the industry who say that smaller ships will be phased out, leaving only the behemoths. But surely there is a yin and yang here.

The industry says the future is in the big ships, and ports will have to accommodate them or lose them. But passengers want nice places to visit, and if many of the current ports decide they can’t afford the necessary infrastructure or don’t want the shoreside management problems, where are the ships going to go?

The Bar Harbor Town Council must cope with everything from public safety and fire emergencies to toilets, sidewalks and street lighting. There are traffic congestion and parking problems, and though cruise ship passengers don’t drive cars, they do wander around in the streets glued to their cell phones or stand in clumps on the sidewalks, gazing along the storefronts in search of the coveted boiled lobster.

They get lost. They fall down. They get sick after the shore dinner. They sprain their ankles and forget their meds and have heart attacks. They do all this in numbers that most Maine towns don’t see in a lifetime, let alone in a summer. Bar Harbor must be ready for it all.

So when the Governor says, as he did, that municipal government should be able to “maintain and expand the necessary infrastructure to land any cruise ship just as, if not more, effectively than a local port authority,” he may not fully understand just what he is asking of this small town government.

Mind you, a port authority might not be the right solution. The bill that passed the Legislature gives broad authority to a body of five, two of whom are appointed and three of whom are elected. But it also gives town voters the right to decide whether they like that model or not. The Governor wants to take that choice away.

The veto letter also says this: “Bar Harbor is aware they cannot legally prohibit cruise ships from visiting…” Maybe they can’t be refused anchorage, but they don’t have to be provided with the municipal services they receive now, such as a place to bring tenders in or space for huge buses to park on the waterfront. There are plenty of ways in which Bar Harbor could discourage cruise ship visitation if that is what the community prefers.

“The Legislature,” says Governor LePage, “should be more interested in utilizing our existing authorities and state-operated agencies than offering autonomy to anyone seeking it…” Existing authorities and state-operated agencies? Be it through the Town Council or a newly designated port authority, receptivity to cruise ships should be a matter of local control.

The Legislature has 10 days to attempt to override a governor’s veto. This is the kind of bill usually driven by the affected locality. The attempts from far and wide to amend it, and now the Governor’s veto, defy the idea of home rule.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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