Late last month, Bangor city councilors approved a few policies, such as rules for short-term rentals and emergency shelters, that the city has been creating and refining for years before going before the council for final approval.
The two new ordinances are examples of changes that took city staff and elected officials years to draft and tweak before they were finally approved. Many other changes and new ideas have been tangled in municipal red tape for months or years. Some ideas and priorities were delayed indefinitely or forgotten altogether.
Those ideas include creating a housing production plan, which a city housing workgroup recommended in 2019, and hiring a homelessness specialist. Hiring a specialist was recommended in December 2022, but as of last month, the city was “still trying to figure out what that should look like” and hadn’t yet advertised the job opening, according to City Manager Debbie Laurie.
These delays have ultimately hindered progress on developments that could help Bangor’s most pressing issues, such as homelessness and housing, past and present city councilors agreed. They pointed to the city’s election cycle, hesitancy to make decisions and staffing shortages as a few major causes behind the sluggishness.
Too many new faces
Bangor’s council election cycle means three of the nine councilors are up for reelection each year. This can lead to up to a third of the council being new and learning on the job each year.
“Every November is like a reset button is pushed and there’s a period of getting people up to speed that needs to happen,” said Laura Supica, who sat on the City Council from 2017 to 2020 and now serves as a state representative. “There’s a way to elect people where we’re all joining at the same time and learning at the same speed so that we can work on things together.”
Up to a third of the council always being new can lead to an overreliance on city staff who have institutional knowledge, Supica said. While councilors should look to city staff for their expertise, they can’t forget their duty to also hold them accountable if things aren’t aligning with what residents want or need.
“By statute, the City Council isn’t supposed to be too involved in day-to-day operations in the city,” Councilor Cara Pelletier said. “But, it’s our job to step in if things aren’t progressing as they should. It’s on the City Council to reiterate priorities and hold city departments and the city manager accountable.”
This frequent turnover of city councilors leaves room for priorities and plans to slip through the cracks simply because the new members don’t know to ask about them, said Councilor Clare Davitt, whose term expires this month.
To combat this, Davitt recommended the city manager and department heads continue their tradition of debriefing the new council in the days after each election. The meeting gives the new councilors an idea of what issues and efforts they’ve inherited.
In his final weeks on council, Jonathan Sprague also created long-term plans for how Bangor can address homelessness and housing that he hopes will act as a guide for the next council on what the city is working on and what’s left to do so nothing gets lost or forgotten.
The plans, Sprague said, will also track the council’s progress on various efforts and hold the city accountable if they don’t finish things.
Overreliance on resident input
Regardless of how many staff a city has, Sprague said there have been cases when the city intentionally delayed a decision so residents have the opportunity to offer their ideas and opinions on an issue.
This practice, while valid, has perhaps been used too much in Bangor, Pelletier said. The city’s two-year delay on deciding what to do with its $20.5 million of federal pandemic relief funding is a prime example.
The city already has guidance, like its comprehensive plan, that was created by gathering extensive public comment. In some cases, these plans can be used rather than gathering a new crop of public comments that delays a decision or implementation of something, Davitt said.
Other priorities, like creating a plan to address homelessness, get kicked down the road because councilors are overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin, or aren’t ready to make a decision, Sprague said.
When Davitt joined the City Council in 2017, Bangor had approved its third moratorium on recreational marijuana businesses rather than making a final decision on whether to allow them. She was frustrated because if the city approved a fourth moratorium, that would make the city vulnerable to lawsuits, but she said councilors still seemed unwilling to make a choice on the issue.
“No one wanted to have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Davitt said. “At a certain point, let’s just vote.”
Throughout her six years on council, Davitt saw other cases in which councilors were “ambivalent or lacked enthusiasm” about something but weren’t willing to say “no,” so they asked staff for more information, dragging out the decision-making process.
“We all have to be held accountable, even if the decision is uncomfortable,” Davitt said. “We’re all there to vote.”
However, there are often developments in the city, like new policies or zoning changes, that take extensive research and edits, and bounce between city staff and the planning board before ever making it to councilors for final approval, Davitt said.
Constant staffing shortages
The council’s heavy reliance on city staff has been further complicated in recent years by staffing changes in leadership positions, including department heads and the city manager, and employee shortages across most departments.
Supica said the city cleaved its staff between 2008 and 2015 and consolidated positions as people retired. While this keeps taxes low for residents, significantly fewer employees makes it difficult for staff to accomplish much beyond the basic municipal duties that keep the city running.
“We’ve cut and cut and cut to the point where we have a small number of people doing a lot of work,” Supica said. “We’ve got some big issues we’re dealing with that are happening all over the U.S., but it’s hard to keep things on the front burner because we’re short staffed and burned out.”
Sixty-two of the city’s 606 positions were still vacant as of last month, giving Bangor a staffing vacancy rate of 10.2 percent, according to a report Laurie presented to councilors on Oct. 23.
Sprague agreed that the city needs to bolster its workforce, but said “the absence of staffing should never bog down progress.”
While the city works to hire more people, Davitt recommended the next council should frequently check on what progress the city manager and department heads have made on various issues. These conversations should include input from city staff on what other projects they’re working on and how those tasks could slow progress on anything the council has asked for.
This would give the council and residents more information on how long something might take to complete, and help councilors be more explicit about what they want city staff to prioritize.
“There are times when expectations are set way too high, and sometimes things are worth pushing everything aside to get something done,” Davitt said. “There has to be a balance, unless we’re never going to move on anything.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated former Bangor City Councilor Laura Supica’s name. It has been updated.