It is town meeting season in Maine and in this era of dysfunctional government it is something for which we can be thankful. Usually. If that government is best which governs least, Maine towns got the memo. Town meeting is as direct as democracy gets.
Of Maine’s nearly 500 municipalities, only Portland has a population greater than 50,000. Fourteen towns have more than 15,000 residents, while 127 have fewer than 500. Hancock County has seven of the smallest towns. The county’s two largest are Ellsworth (7,840) and Bar Harbor (5,146).
Most are governed by some combination of elected selectmen or councilors, sometimes a manager or administrator, and (in most towns) town meeting. The simplest form is the board of selectmen. Yes, some selectmen are women, but this is a linguistic battle that most Mainers don’t care to fight. Be they male or female, most elected officials are okay with “selectman.”
Most boards of selectmen have three members, though a few have five or even seven. The curious thing about selectmen is their length of service. It seems as though there is some genetic predetermination for the job, and once elected it is not uncommon for them to continue to serve for years upon years, decades upon decades.
This is true all over Hancock County. Swans Island had Dexter Lee and still has Sonny Sprague, each with close to fifty years of service as selectmen in their town. Gouldsboro has Dana Rice, long-time selectman, harbormaster, and a respected voice on fisheries issue in Augusta. Gary Fortier served more than 20 years on the Ellsworth City Council (and 35 years in the Ellsworth Fire Department). In Sedgwick, Colby Pert held nearly every office that a person can hold for three decades. John Bannister was a Blue Hill selectman for 25 years.
Some selectmen have held other offices as well. Jim Schatz of Blue Hill served in the Maine House of Representatives for three terms, but he has been a selectman for several decades. He has put an inordinate amount of time into the town office, serving as de facto town administrator. Dexter Lee also pulled double duty, taking care of administrative duties for Swans Island while he served as a selectman.
In Deer Isle, Joe (Percy) Brown has taken a selectman’s seat after serving for twenty years on the Hancock County Commission. After 33 years as Sheriff, Bill Clark was elected to the County Commission in 2013 and is now serving his second term.
Lamoine’s administrative assistant, Stu Marckoon, has been on the job for more than 25 years. Kathleen Billings was town clerk in Stonington for nine years, then took the post of town manager and has served for eleven years. Dana Reed was Bar Harbor’s town manager for 28 years.
Representative Sherm Hutchins of Penobscot estimates that he has moderated more than 100 town meetings in his area. He served a term in the Maine House in 1989-90 and just returned for another term. Skip Greenlaw is a familiar face as Stonington’s town meeting moderator.
These men and women have what it takes to face the challenge of public service in a small town. You are face to face with the people you serve all day, every day, fielding phone calls, coaxing compliance and pouring oil on troubled waters. And compensation? It is a pittance on any terms, but especially considering the time the job demands.
It is made ever so much more complicated by a state government that continues to pile rules and regulations on municipal governments, regardless of the size of the community. From the complex system of funding public schools to the requirement that each municipality must place flags (and flag holders) on the graves of veterans on Memorial Day, it has become extremely difficult to keep on the right side of state law without professional help.
Maine Municipal Association, the “trade” organization for Maine towns and cities, does yeoman’s work in providing training opportunities and resource information for town officials, as well as serving as an advocate for towns in Augusta. It is MMA that takes up the fight against unfunded mandates, works to protect state and municipal revenue sharing, and defends Maine’s treasured home rule.
To serve as a selectman one must have broad shoulders, thick skin and a tolerance for human frailty. There is only one explanation for why so many of our public servants stay on the job for so very long. They love their towns and have a deeply generous understanding of the people who live there. They have earned the trust of their towns and are elected time and time again.
Better them than you, right? The next time you see one of your selectmen around town, a smile and a “thank you” would not be out of order.