State of Maine: Saluting Hancock County’s public service stalwarts 

In this last, pre-election edition, opining on election races is verboten. At a time when few are thinking about anything else, that necessitates some head-scratching. What is a writer to do? Extol the glories of the autumn foliage? Offer some Thanksgiving recipes? Lament the absence of marshmallow Peeps this Halloween? 

We can do better than that. At a time when politics seems more of an affliction than a public service, we can sing the praises of Hancock County municipal officials who have served extraordinarily long terms with great distinction, for little or no compensation.  

We’ll start with Gouldsboro’s Dana Rice, harbormaster for 40-plus years and counting. In Gouldsboro, one is not master of a harbor  it is “harbors,” plural. There are six harbors in Rice’s watery domain, and he knows each and every one of them intimately. 

As with every other municipal responsibility, the job is bigger, harder and more complicated that it was when Rice first took charge. A man with an easygoing demeanor and a basso profundo voice, Rice’s style is to be reasonable but expect cooperation. Few people could survive the push and pull of a Maine waterfront for that long. Dana Rice, who has also been a selectman for many years, is one of a kind. 

Sadly, two other municipal stalwarts in Hancock County are no longer with us. Steve Bemiss of Surry stepped back from public service this year after 22 years as a selectman and passed away just a few months later. Bemiss had what it takes for such lengthy service, a quiet voice and a steady hand on the tiller. 

Surry, like many small Maine towns, has benefited from decades of service from members of their community. Institutional memory? They’ve had it in abundance. Surry also lost longtime selectman Wilbur Saunders this year. Wilbur logged 24 years as a Surry selectman and was celebrated not only in Surry but in municipal circles statewide.  

Another Surry official, Jonathan Thomas, was also in it for the long haul, putting in two decades as the town’s administrative assistant. This is a position some boards of selectmen adopt to lift some of the administrative burden from the selectmen. The other option is to hire a town manager. 

Despite these options for professional help, in many of Maine’s smallest towns selectmen still do it all. They are on call 24/7, taking on all the administrative duties for their towns. It can be brutal. State law puts many requirements on communities, including what they have to do and how they have to do it. It is getting harder and harder to navigate the minefields of personnel policies, budgets and employee supervision. 

Another local official who passed away this month is Neville Hardy of Deer Isle. He served for 47 years as first selectman. Neville was old-school. He took good care of community members who he deemed needed help, but for everyone else he did not suffer fools gladlyNeville was captain of the ship and ran it according to his own rules. That approach, and the results, met with favor in Deer Isle, where he was elected over and over. 

As witness to the fact that few people are prepared to put the amount of time into community leadership that Hardy did, when health issues arose for him in 2014 Deer Isle hired an administrative assistant. Hardy retired as a selectman in 2016, and in 2018 Deer Isle hired a town manager.  

Deer Isle native Kathleen Billings became town clerk of neighboring Stonington and then became town manager. She has now passed the two-decade mark of service. So had Blue Hill selectman Jim Schatz when he retired in 2019. He had also served three terms as a state legislator. Frank Dedmon of Sullivan served 20 years as a selectman, and more on the school board and as fire chief. Bruce Carter of Franklin served intermittent years as a selectman and many more (over 40) as a town assessor. Skip Greenlaw served 32 years on the CDS#13 school board that oversees the schools of Deer Isle and Stonington. 

What motivates these people to dedicate decades of their lives to public service — service that often amounts to listening to the complaints of friends and neighbors, weeding out those that are legitimate and putting an inordinate amount of effort into addressing them? Most of them come up with a similar answer. The need was there, and they stepped up to meet it.  

It is a pull to public service that some people never feel and others cannot resist. It’s a matter of “nobody else wanted to do it.” It’s the feeling that “I live here. I might as well try.” Whatever the reason, think about who is pulling more than their weight in your town, and whether you could help, too. 

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.

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