Can we make our governments play in tune?

What does fiddle camp have to do with politics? Fred Benson was hoping you’d ask. A resident of Mount Desert Island, Fred served with distinction in the U.S. Army, completing two combat tours and retiring as a full colonel. He knows his way around the Pentagon and the White House, and is a respected voice for amicable and productive relationships within and between governments.

Fred also is an aspiring fiddle player, one of 350 musicians who attended Maine Fiddle Camp in August. Not one to simply rosin up his bow and make music, Fred was an attentive observer of the fiddle camp culture as well. He came away thinking of it is a model to which our government might aspire.

Unity of purpose, commitment to a common goal, trust, respect, shared responsibility for a “safe, clean and healthy environment” and leadership that was “firm and fair” made fiddle camp a high-functioning culture, and Fred proposes that those principles would add value to our government.

Oh, how easy it would be to be a cynic about Fred’s hopes that his happy experience at fiddle camp could hold lessons for the world of government. With ample evidence around us of the savagery to which our political culture has devolved, is there any hope that governments can make beautiful music together?

Well, maybe there is. The likeliest outbursts of harmony come not from the federal government, nor even, lately, from Augusta. It is at the municipal level where elected and appointed officials are most likely to develop proposals that, as Fred says, are “designed to support the common good.”

Maine’s municipal governments are not partisan. Sure, local political leaders may have party affiliations and ideological leanings, but local officials do not run as party candidates. Hence, there are no divisive (and expensive) primaries, no behind-the-scenes caucuses that corrode the working relationships among municipal leaders, and no ideological lines in the sand that restrict problem-solving opportunities.

Cooperation may be a scarce commodity in Washington, but it is alive and well at the local level. Though proud of their unique identities, Maine towns have historically found ways to work together. Dispatch and mutual aid for fire and police departments, coordinated back up for law enforcement personnel and regional economic development efforts are a few examples.

On Mount Desert Island, the successful sharing of a police chief between two towns (Bar Harbor and Mount Desert) is being closely watched by a third community. With the Southwest Harbor police chief retiring this month, town manager Don Lagrange wants to explore all alternatives before replacing the chief, and “one of them is the possibility of having one chief on the island.”

Administrative changes such as these are delicate. Town residents are very cautious about yielding autonomy. But when it is clearly in their best interest, they can be persuaded to do so. Negotiations to create a single high school on MDI went on for decades before the island-wide high school opened in 1968.

Now, the half-life of these discussions is decreasing. The MDI Regional School System, itself an example of inter-town cooperation, is considering a single school bus system to serve the public schools of MDI and Trenton. Superintendent Howard Colter expects to have a proposal before the MDIRSS board this winter.

In Ellsworth, City Manager Michelle Beal has just become president of the Maine Municipal Association. MMA provides municipal services to Maine towns and is a vital link for communication between towns. MMA defended municipalities from charges of duplication and waste by publishing a list (in 2012) of municipal collaborations, including estimates of cost-savings that resulted.

In Hancock County, five towns (Blue Hill, Brooklin, Brooksville, Sedgwick and Penobscot) share ambulance services. Other joint ventures in the county include school administrative services, wastewater and solid waste management, assessing services, recycling and joint purchase of heating oil. Twenty-five Hancock County communities save money through joint purchasing of road sand and salt.

The town of Lamoine is one of several towns that pay an annual fee for use of the Ellsworth Public Library and the Down East Family YMCA. The towns of Bar Harbor and Mount Desert and the city of Ellsworth realized a discount by sharing a contractor for revaluation of their municipalities.

It takes a lot of practice for even the finest musicians to play well together. Government officials at the local level get a lot of practice. They show up on time, instruments in tune, and sit down with the expectation that they can produce a pleasing sound.

At the state and federal levels, instead of playing from the same sheet of music the political music-makers are out of tune or playing from different scores altogether.

The municipal model holds out the hope that our government can do better. Fred Benson has dealt with some of the most complex bureaucracies on the planet. If he thinks better government is possible, who are we to argue? Says Fred: “Doing nothing to correct a seriously flawed political environment is not a viable option. Let’s work — and vote — to get our government in tune.”

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.