SACO - Former State Senator Justin Chenette, of Saco, has announced he is running for a seat on the York County Commission in next year’s election.
“I’m running to be your next county commissioner to fight every single day for a more accessible, transparent, and accountable government -- just like I’ve done in the legislature,” says Chenette. “We should expect more from our elected officials than just the bare minimum; They should be accountable to you.”
One of the biggest issues Chenette sees is the lack of engagement and awareness of what is happening with county government.
“The county commission shouldn’t be Maine’s lost level of government. Sadly, we don’t see a lot of attention paid to county government actions and that directly stems from our elected officials not engaging the public throughout the decision-making process. I’m seeking to change that with a new generation of leadership on the commission.”
Chenette plans to hold monthly office hours, attend community events, and provide frequent updates through social media, email newsletters, and newspaper columns to keep the public informed and to get direct feedback. He also wants to see commission meetings held in the evening instead of during the day to encourage greater participation.
If elected, Chenette would be the first millennial ever elected to the commission, at age 30, and would be the only commissioner who is a member of the LGBTQ+ community. He previously made history as the youngest lawmaker in the country when he was first elected to the Maine House of Representatives at age 21. He served a total of 8 years in the legislature, with two terms in the House and two terms in the Senate, including a stint as chairman of the bipartisan Government Oversight Committee.
Chenette is currently the only registered candidate with the Maine Ethics Commission for the District #3 seat which includes Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Buxton, and Dayton, though the district is subject to redistricting changes. The commission term is 4 years and the Primary Election is set for next June.
To view Chenette’s full action plan, visit www.AccountableToYou.org.
Do you know what our county commission does? How about who our county commissioner is or what that person does for us on a regular basis? Sadly, I don’t think many can answer those questions easily. We don’t hear anything about what’s happening on the county level nor how we can participate in the decision-making process. This is a major problem. The County Commission shouldn’t be Maine’s lost level of government.
For County Commissioners, it seems as if the lack of awareness of what they do has translated into a lack of effort. No awareness translates into no accountability. No accountability means they can skirt by without doing much. They have a position and title for 4 years per term without term limits, getting paid the same as our state lawmakers, yet we don’t see or hear from them until they are up for re-election.
County Commissioners should hold monthly office hours, virtual or otherwise, to give you an opportunity for direct feedback. They should write monthly columns, providing in-depth reports on key issues and ideas. They should post on social media, record videos, and send out email newsletters explaining decisions. They should update the county website, where most of the county commissioner information is currently left blank. They should be visible and actively volunteer in the communities they serve at local events. This is public service 101. These are simple items that could be done today as a bare minimum of what they should be doing and yet it’s not happening.
So last night was illuminating. I attended both the County Commission workshop on how they plan to spend the $40 million from the Feds and the regular County Commission meeting. Seeing that no public hearing was held in our area and that there’s been limited to no promotion around the solicitation of public feedback, I figured I'd go to see what’s happening in person.
I decided to address the commissioners during Public Comment to mention some of my concerns around the need for greater accessibility for meeting times and transparency. I mentioned how difficult it is for working Mainers to make 3:30PM or even 4:30PM meetings not to mention the public hearings held even earlier in day over the summer. I also mentioned some ideas like County Commissioners holding virtual forums to get direct constituent input.
Instead of just taking my constructive feedback, one by one the commissioners decided to make excuses and even berate me from the dais. It was incredibly inappropriate and very sad to see. The fact that the County Commission doesn’t even think there is a problem with awareness and participation, is in fact the problem. They don’t see how the structure of county government is keeping people from engaging in the process.
I was literally told if working Mainers want to attend their meetings, they should take off time from work to be there. Period. No sympathy. No willingness to consider alternatives. Excuses included comparing themselves to the state legislature. They have day meetings, so we must as well. Keep in mind County Commissioners meet generally twice a month just like municipal government and can set the meeting times whenever they want. Having served 8 years there, they aren’t the legislature. I was also told issues like government transparency and accessibility aren’t real issues, just noise. Aside from inaccessible meeting times, no wonder no one goes to the meetings to give comments. What’s the point of providing public comment if you aren’t going to listen to the public? They just ignored one of their constituents very publicly.
One positive from the night, I was able to get them to at least acknowledge the current lawsuit pending against the county for a lack of disclosure of public records by a media organization. I’ve been raising the alarm about this for a month and half since the news broke and all I’ve wanted was County Commissioners to put out a statement that they are looking into the matter. It’s been crickets up until last night when my comments finally broke through and we got a response. It shouldn’t take a former legislator publicly calling them out for our County Commissioners to keep us informed and recognize the seriousness of not dealing with public records requests.
This whole experience has left me with a sour taste in mouth. The arrogant, status quo attitude gives me a firm desire to demand change. The lack of public awareness of what’s happening in county government has clearly given County Commissioners a blank check with no accountability and subsequently created major complacency. We deserve better.
Some big questions: Why is York County government shielding access to public records? Why are reporters having to sue to get access to those public records? And where are our county commissioners on this? This is why I'm so upset about this recent transparency scandal facing our county.
This is deeply troubling. Every county commissioner should be outraged and provide oversight to prevent this from happening. Reporters should not have to sue to gain access to public records. Seems like York County has a transparency problem.
As a former journalist, former chair of the Government Oversight Committee, and now a member of the Right to Know Advisory Committee, our Freedom of Access laws are meant to ensure journalists and the public know what our governmental institutions are doing. When information is shielded, it keeps us all in the dark. It makes it look like there is something to hide, even when there isn't. Unacceptable.