Thankless Hometown Duty

Posted Oct. 19, 2008, at 8:16 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:26 a.m.

Senators and representatives to Congress earn about $170,000 annually, enjoy generous health care benefits and, if they stay in office long enough, receive a generous federal pension. Maine’s selectmen and city councilors get paid pennies on the actual hours they work, may be handed an aspirin by a town clerk for the headaches they get after long, contentious meetings, and when their service ends, get a plaque expressing gratitude — if they’re lucky.

Serving the town or city you love in local government is thankless work. It’s also increasingly difficult, and demands skills that border on the professional. Gone are the days when selectmen would gather around a table in a farmhouse kitchen to work out the town’s bills.

The same is certainly true of serving on a school board. Members often lug home reams of paper from reports, memos and budgets. A trip to the grocery store might mean long conversations with concerned parents, or an unpleasant confrontation with an angry taxpayer.

Two election dust-ups in Maine illustrate how hard it is on democracy’s home front.

In Trenton, a former town employee has led the charge to expand the town’s board of selectmen from three members to five. The work at the municipal level has indeed become more demanding, as she says, justifying the change. Spreading the work among five instead of just three elected officials seems reasonable. The question will be on the Nov. 4 ballot.

But critics of the proposal charge that the former town employee is less concerned about the work burden and more concerned with seeing “alternative points of view” on the board, as she told the Mount Desert Islander newspaper.

Local voters are capable of sorting this out, but it seems as if the move is designed to change the make-up of the board by adding members with views different than those of the incumbents.

A similar effort to remake an elected board is on the ballot in Belfast. Two city councilors are targeted in a recall vote on Nov. 4. Their offenses? The two councilors voted to change the zoning on a parcel of land from allowing big box stores to prohibiting such development.

One of the proponents of the recall had a financial interest in the proposed big box property.

In both the Trenton and Belfast cases, patience is a more prudent response for those unhappy with the current make-up of the boards. Changing course in a community in Maine is, thankfully, a lot easier than remaking Congress or even the State House. Those unhappy with elected officials in Trenton and Belfast should rely on the good old-fashioned American way — wait until the incumbents face re-election, then work to defeat them.

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