AUGUSTA, Maine — Hard as it may be to believe, more than 70 percent of Americans trusted federal government as recently as a half century ago.
Today, the number is closer to 20 percent.
Trust in state government is slightly higher and trust of municipal officials is higher still, but those numbers have eroded steadily over the last several years, too, as citizens grow increasingly skeptical and cynical.
Still, municipal officials — town managers, clerks, assessors, councilors and selectmen — have a unique opportunity to regain that trust because they are on the front lines and can relate to constituents on a more personal level.
That was the message Wednesday during the keynote address at the 75th annual Maine Municipal Association convention, which brought together hundreds of town and city officials from across the state.
Scott Paine, a former city councilor in Tampa, Fla., and now a national expert on local government, told Maine officials that the best way to rebuild trust with citizens is by being honest, open and fair.
“People expect us to be jerks, to abuse our power,” he said. “And sometimes all it takes is one instance and we’re all painted with the same brush.”
High-profile instances of embezzlement by local officials in towns such as Newburgh and Chelsea and fear of the loss of personal property rights in towns such as Hampden have suggested that the mistrust is, in some cases, justified.
John Sylvester, a longtime selectman in the town of Alfred and recent president of the Maine Municipal Association board of directors, agreed with Paine that the best thing municipal officials can do is meet critics head-on.
Sylvester said his town recently brought a group of vocal critics together with a group of government supporters for a series of sessions. The sessions were productive and although they didn’t end with agreement on matters, both sides left with mutual respect.
Sophie Wilson, town manager for Orono and the incoming president of the Maine Municipal Association board, said her response to criticism is to make sure she’s not defensive.
“I think citizens asking questions about government and about how their tax dollars are spent is a good thing,” she said. “In an age where more and more information is readily available, our citizenry is more informed in some cases.”
Paine’s keynote speech kicked off the annual Maine Municipal Association convention, which continues Thursday.
Wilson and Sylvester both said the event is the best opportunity for municipal officials to network and learn new strategies for governing at the local level.
One thing that is lost in governing at the local level, according to Paine, is the notion that all municipal officials are doing what they do to serve the public. The public may not always like the decisions that are made, he said, but local officials need to be courageous in their convictions.
“That may not win you any votes,” he said. “But it might earn you respect.”