As the calendar rolls over to 2022, the prognosticating class is busy guessing what will happen in Maine in the new year. Never mind that they were below low tide for 2021 predictions, they are still prepared to issue another batch for 2022.
Rather than add to the speculation, how about we just let it happen and then talk about it? Speculating about who will win an election can have an effect on voter turnout and election outcomes. A shoo-in or a lost cause does not excite the voters. A squeaker? That will bring them out.
Of more value than gazing into a crystal ball might be looking at trends in government and thinking about what they mean for our future. Though most people are as eager to run for office as they are to spot the first black fly in spring, some have been enticed to serve to keep the wheels of government turning.
At the federal level national attention, a six-figure salary, health insurance, drivers and staff may help offset the downside. Or not. Many thoughtful federal officials, including Sens. Olympia Snowe, George Mitchell and William Cohen, left office expressing frustration at the inability to govern.
Few of the perks of the federal level exist in state or local government. Closer to home, the perks are … well, hmmm. What are they? It is mostly a call to service that brings out those who run for office at the state or municipal level.
Some municipalities are having a hard time finding candidates. This past November, no candidates filed to run for the two open seats on the Old Town City Council. Both were filled by write-in candidates. Other communities had just enough candidates to fill vacancies, giving voters no choice.
It is not hard to understand why there is limited enthusiasm about running for local office. In most Maine communities the pay is minimal, a token rather than actual compensation. Government in a small town is up close and personal. Everybody knows each other; many were in school together and can recite the genealogies of most of the families in town. Many are related to or have worked for or with each other. A long history of relationships must be navigated as local officials do their jobs.
In larger towns with a town manager or administrator, a town or city council’s job is to set policy while staff takes on the daily operations. It is still no picnic, but it is nothing like in smaller towns where the selectmen, usually three people, do it all. (The title of “selectman,” like “lobsterman,” is understood to apply to both men and women and remains widely used.)
The duties of selectmen are integrated into their daily lives. They stop to help load hose at the fire station on their way home from work. They check on the dump when they go to the post office. They take a detour from their usual route to check out a recently reported pothole. They take on multiple roles, distributing the work of the town amongst themselves.
Selectmen are also assessors, overseers, road commissioners, animal control officers, welfare directors, directors of emergency management and health officers. Still, someone has always stepped up to take on the responsibility. It is often a family affair, with spouses of selectmen filling some town jobs. There are second- or third-generation selectmen. Many serve for decades, yet they are beginning to acknowledge that it is not what it used to be. Residents are getting more demanding and less forgiving. Fewer people are willing to take on the job.
Elected and appointed officials and state and municipal staffs trying to follow Tom Brady’s advice to “do your job” are met with public hostility and threats, both in public meetings and online. The result is diminishing interest in serving in government at all.
Is the sacred New England tradition of town meeting still a viable way to run a town? It may be “pure democracy,” the people coming out to have their say, but the trouble is very few of the people do come out. Decisions are made by small numbers in each community, the rest of the town voters choosing by their absence to live with those decisions. And not every voter has made the effort to educate themselves on what is at stake.
The likelihood of most Maine communities to turn the reins over to a governing body with full decision-making authority is slim to none. For the time being, local governments will carry on until there is no one left willing to stand for office. And then? The residents of every Maine town will need to consider how that question will be answered in their own community.
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.