Six years serving on the Gouldsboro Select Board hardly qualifies as sufficient experience to opine authoritatively about the role of government in American society, but that experience nonetheless provides me with a perspective that may merit wider consideration.
Government serves a necessary purpose: making decisions about how best to use residents’ taxes to support the common good. Maintaining roads and plowing them in winter, providing police and fire protection, keeping careful records of excise and property taxes and births and deaths, and administering elections are all necessary government functions that benefit all residents. Roughly one-third of all tax dollars are allocated to such services.
Two-thirds of our town expenditures, however, go to the school district. If you are old, have no children in or emotional attachment to our schools, then you may believe that you are subsidizing children’s education with no obvious benefit in return. Unless, that is, you benefited in the past from a public education and believe as a result that it’s a right of every youngster and that an educated public is an enduring social benefit.
All these governmental services are, or should be, a feature of every community, so let’s refer to them as necessary expenditures. Whatever money is left over after spending on these necessities, and it is not very much, can be referred to as “discretionary spending.”
Shall the town fund the local library? Should the town build a public park? Should the town donate to nonprofits, such as the local clinic and food pantry, that serve some but not all members of the community? Should the town fund building and then maintaining a baseball field for youngsters?
It is these discretionary spending items that invariably attract the most attention from our residents, often sparking lively debate and intense scrutiny.
Select boards are purely executive in function while the annual town meeting has legislative authority. True, warrant items come usually with a recommendation from the Select Board, Budget Committee or both, and more often than not the town “legislature” supports the board’s recommendations.
Symbolically and in practice, residents who support these recommendations are essentially saying they trust their local officials to have competently and with due diligence brought only vitally important issues before them for consideration.
Trust, of course, can be fragile. Public trust in elected officials is probably highest at the local level of government. Members of the Select Board are accessible by phone, email, or by coincidence at the local convenient store or gas station. Board members are known personally by large numbers of folks.
But as one moves up the food chain to the state and federal levels, public trust in government weakens for the opposite reasons. We seldom see and even less seldom speak with our representatives. They work at places miles and miles away from the people who elected them. And, unlike local elected officials, state and federal representatives tend to be deeply partisan.
Since voters rarely have a personal relationship with their state and federal representatives, votes are often cast based on the candidate’s party affiliation or personality as communicated on TV or in the print news. Trust requires a huge leap of faith when it relies on those two narrow and impersonal attributes — party affiliation and personal style.
If trust is the glue that makes local government work, civic trust in state and federal officials becomes ever more fragile, especially when officials are caught in contradictions, lies and misbehavior. In a recent New York Times OpEd, the sociologist Neil Gross asked if “trust in American democracy is eroding because the nation has become too big to be effectively governed through traditional means,” and suggested that the smaller the government entity, the more likely government will be responsive to the interests of the common good rather particular vested interests.
In Gouldsboro, the Select Board acts on behalf of all residents and doesn’t make decisions based on lobbying by the rich and powerful. Yet, it is also true that the town’s “legislature,” those who actually attend the annual town meeting and vote on warrant items, consists largely of the older and more prosperous residents. Why the less prosperous and younger residents do not exercise their legislative authority in deciding how taxes should be spent is the conundrum that makes local democracy less than perfect.
That wart on the local body politic cannot be overlooked. Nevertheless, I’ll take local democracy over the chaos of Augusta and Washington any day of the week.
Roger Bowen is completing his second and final term as a Gouldsboro selectman.
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