For the most part, decade after decade, Maine municipal officials have kept their towns chugging along. In cities and larger towns, elected officials have a town or city manager and other staff to absorb part of the workload but even then, demands on an elected official’s time are substantial and the pay low, if not inconsequential.
For select board members in smaller towns, much of the load is directly on them. This means picking up trash or plowing roads, checking in at the town office every time they pass by, considering a new fire engine or fixing an old one, all in between their “real” jobs. Business is done on the fly, whenever a resident with a bee in their bonnet or baseball cap flags a board member down.
The strain on these part-time local officials grows significantly when the Maine Legislature, in its infinite wisdom, steps in to “help” in the form of state laws, with which select board members must be sure their towns comply.
These laws regulate everything from “maintenance of state aid roads, enforcement of shoreland zoning regulations, code enforcement, animal control and the management of solid waste programs, just to name a few.” (Maine Municipal Association.) Placing flags on veterans’ graves on Memorial Day? State law makes that a municipal responsibility. In most towns, volunteers step up. Do we have to be told by the state to do it?
In 1992, Mainers supported a state constitutional amendment that required the state to fund any mandates “imposed upon a municipality by statute, by executive order or by rule.” That constitutional amendment helped to some degree, but in the Legislature, there is always a way. In combination with unfunded mandates that increase the demand on a select board member’s time and ingenuity, another major factor in municipal disenchantment is the deluge of hate and discontent heaped on those willing to stand up and serve their communities.
Whether it is the utter breakdown of civility among elected officials at the national level or the absolute lack of constraint in the public sphere, singling oneself out by volunteering for public service can be thankless, dangerous or fatal. Whether it is one congressman calling another an unprintable epithet, or Starbucks closing 16 stores because they cannot maintain a “safe environment” for their customers and employees (despite “de-escalation” training), any expectation of reasonable civic comportment is so often dashed that it is no longer an expectation.
It’s not just town mothers and fathers, either; it is pretty much anyone in public service. School boards? That might be the worst. Parents come to meetings and yell at, jeer and boo school board members. A school board member in Portland resigned, attributing her departure to “negativity and public rancor among elected officials.” And we wonder why our kids have anger management or “acting out” issues? Look no further. The result? Town elections with no competition for seats or no candidates at all.
Social media has only served to amplify the voices of those who mock or disparage elected officials. Some sites allow cowards to hide in anonymity, but others who post under their own names seem proud of their willingness to malign their neighbors who serve their communities. One official in a northern Maine town said, “Lately, I have not been able to go to the grocery store, the gas station or even the dump. It’s really, really deeply saddening.”
On top of all this is a shortage of workers in general. Summer camps are understaffed. Tourist shops and restaurants are open for limited days or hours. This is having a big impact on municipalities, too. Police departments and emergency medical services are desperate for help at the same time a post-pandemic resumption of travel has sent visitor numbers up, putting additional demand on law enforcement, ambulance services and hospitals.
In addition to wondering whether anyone will be there to take the call when we turn to our emergency response systems, the cultural and recreational institutions that enrich our lives such as libraries, youth programs and YMCAs and YWCAs are hard-pressed to maintain a full schedule of activities. Their only alternative is to reduce hours.
When is the last time someone who screamed in your face made you a better person, a harder worker, a more valuable employee? Elected officials are not magicians. They cannot solve problems with the wave of a wand, but they are bringing what energy and creativity they have to bear on municipal problems. Chastising, berating them or cursing them out in public is not likely to lead to an improvement in town services or a reduction in your town budget. They need your help, your patience, your constructive input. Otherwise, if you want municipal jobs done, you may have to do them yourself.
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.