Municipal officials are expressing frustration over what they say is a lack of guidance and communication from the Mills administration on how to hold elections and obligatory town meetings during the coronavirus crisis.

Local leaders say they also are fielding constant calls from tourist-dependent business owners who are confused about reopening plans, residents upset about stores not following safety guidelines, and out-of-staters demanding to know when they can begin using their Maine properties.

“We’re not getting any answers from Augusta, which is pretty frustrating,” said Jay Feyler, town manager of Union. “We have a lot of citizens asking about elections and balloting, and a lot of people want to do paper ballots. But we’re not getting answers from Augusta, for some reason.”

Since pivoting to focus on the spreading coronavirus in early March, Gov. Janet Mills has issued more than 35 executive orders covering everything from the statewide “stay-at-home” order to burn permits and needle exchange programs during the pandemic.

Much of the recent focus has been on ways to gradually reopen Maine’s economy while simultaneously expanding testing and maintaining enough public health protections to avoid the scale of outbreaks seen in other states.

But municipal leaders throughout Maine are waiting for guidance from the state on how to run some of the mundane-yet-essential functions of local government – things like state-mandated town meetings, local elections and primaries, and tax collections at a time when many residents are out of work.

Audra Caler-Bell, Camden’s town manager, said she feels as if municipalities “are this forgotten part of government” that are struggling to get answers to critical questions.

Caler-Bell said some of the biggest frustrations in Camden have been over how to run upcoming elections as well as a town meeting – needed to choose school board members and selectmen, set the municipal budget and approve the town’s capital improvement plan – when gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited.

Right now, Camden plans to allow residents to vote by secret ballot on all of the typical town meeting warrants on July 14, which is also the rescheduled date of the statewide primary elections. But Caler-Bell and other town officials are awaiting guidance on various balloting issues, not to mention on questions about implementing and enforcing the phased, economic reopening plan.

“We’re given no guidance, there is no office or liaison that we can reach out to at the governor’s office so I think it is leading to this ad hoc, inconsistent implementation across the state,” Caler-Bell said.

On Tuesday, the administration released an executive order giving municipalities some guidance on tax issues, such as providing homeowners more leeway to pay owed taxes before a lien is placed on a property, or delaying property tax collection dates because of COVID-19.

Anthony Ronzio, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, said the administration also will soon issue guidance on town meetings, budgeting and other pressing needs of local government.

“There is an executive order in the works that should be available in the coming days,” Ronzio said. “Maine Municipal (Association) has been collaborating on it … I know it’s urgent and the urgency is recognized to get this done.”

The Maine Municipal Association has been acting as the liaison between local leaders and the administration in Augusta. That’s a role the organization traditionally performs at any given time – not just during a pandemic – as MMA advocates on issues important to member towns and cities before the Legislature and the executive branch.

Eric Conrad, director of communications and educational services at MMA, said agency staff “are very clear about conveying our members’ concerns” regarding COVID-19 during a weekly conference call with Hannah Pingree, who heads the Office of Policy Innovation and the Future.

Additionally, MMA staff regularly hold virtual conferences attended by hundreds of municipal leaders and provide legal guidance on issues. But Conrad acknowledged some town leaders’ frustration with the continuing uncertainty over election processes and budgeting.

“The governor and the state people have so much to deal with right now,” Conrad said. “Municipal government is really, really important, but it is one aspect of that. And we feel appreciative of the direct lines we have to some members of the Mills administration.”

“Our regular communication with Maine Municipal is ongoing,” said Ronzio. “We understand the urgency and are moving as quickly as we can.”

Multiple town leaders said they understand the challenge the Mills administration faces it as confronts an unprecedented situation, at least in modern times. However, concerns about improved lines of communication aren’t limited to smaller municipalities.

In a May 8 letter, the mayors of several of Maine’s larger communities – Augusta, Auburn, Biddeford, Lewiston, Portland, Rockland, Saco, Sanford and South Portland – requested a weekly meeting with Mills to discuss issues. At the top of their list are election procedures, municipal budgets, distribution of federal funds, and the timing and guidelines for reopening the state.

“Now more than ever, it’s critical we are on the same page,” wrote the members of the Mayors’ Coalition. “We believe the ongoing conversations you are having with leaders of our neighboring states is the right strategy as we consider how to best reopen Maine. Taking the same approach of regular, direct communication with municipalities will also benefit our entire state. It will help inform your understanding of what’s happening at our level of governance and improve our ability to anticipate and coordinate changes in policy.”

In many coastal towns, particularly those closest to New Hampshire and Massachusetts, municipal leaders are besieged by questions about when and how businesses catering to tourists will be allowed to reopen, as well as how to deal with out-of-state visitors.

“In my 40-year career in state government, I have never been as busy as I am now answering calls, emails,” said Jonathan Carter, Wells’ town manager.

Carter estimated that roughly 10,000 people in his small town are involved with hotels, condominiums, campgrounds, camps, RV parks or other parts of the lodging industry.

“And they are all calling to find out what is going on, when can they come up,” Carter said. “The biggest question we get is around quarantine.”

Under the Mills administration’s current guidelines, any out-of-state visitors except those traveling to Maine for “essential” jobs must quarantine for 14 days after arriving. That means they can’t go to grocery stores, gas stations or other public places where they could spread the virus to others.

Carter said he has prepared a template that points questioners to the Mills’ administration’s written guidance and orders. But he said “many of them somehow equate us as the bad guys.”

Overall, Carter said that “the governor is trying to do her best” during an unprecedented pandemic and that he and other town officials “are trying to do what we can to support” her administration.

Just up Route 1 in Old Orchard Beach, Town Manager Larry Mead said he has been trying to get answers from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development for the many local campgrounds that cater to out-of-state visitors.

Some of those answers finally arrived the other day, so Mead said he is preparing to pass them along to campground operators, whom the town will rely on to ensure out-of-state residents comply with the 14-day quarantine.

“We also are receiving feedback from local residents who don’t want to move too quickly, who don’t want to open up too quickly and are concerned about the virus spreading here because of out-of-state visitors over the summer,” Mead said. “It’s an issue that all of us are dealing with at the state level and local level.”

Many towns, like Camden, are moving forward with town meeting and election planning even as they await further guidance from the state.

Yarmouth postponed its town meeting until June 30 and plans to hold it in the high school gymnasium to allow participants to safely maintain a 6-foot buffer between each other. They’ve also eliminated the “citizen of the year” and other ceremonies that would often draw additional people.

“That is a current plan. It may change, but I don’t have any larger space available,” Town Manager Nat Tupper said. “I would love to get some more guidance. I hope the governor will allow the election process to go forward with written ballots.”

As in many towns, most poll workers in Union are in the age demographic – over 60 – that accounts for the vast majority of Maine’s 66 deaths so far from COVID-19. To protect them and the general public, the town plans to issue paper ballots for all of the financial issues that typically would be voted on during the town meeting and to have everything happen on July 14.

But Feyler, the Union town manager, said that is technically not compliant with current law, which is why he is frustrated by the delays in obtaining guidance.

“I’ve been an advocate  … to have the governor have an advisory board of municipalities, small and large, and to have these people who are working every day – the clerks and managers – to help her get through these things,” he said.

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