Bangor is one of only two larger Maine communities that explicitly limit their elected officials’ political behavior, according to a review of rules from Maine’s 15 largest cities and towns.
The limitations aren’t common nationwide, according to one expert, but they are one way local governments can try to counteract the growing infiltration of national politics into local debates, he said.
Bangor’s Board of Ethics is preparing to review and potentially revise sections of the city’s code of ethics requiring “nonpartisanship” from members of the Bangor City Council. The review comes after four councilors signed a letter in late March supporting Northern Light Health nurses in contract negotiations, leading some to wonder whether the councilors violated the partisanship ban.
Advocates of such rules see them as necessary for local unity and a safeguard against national partisanship distracting from local issues. Opponents see them as too far-reaching and prohibitive of speech.
A review of city codes and charters from Maine’s 15 cities and towns with 15,000 or more residents found that only Bangor and Waterville had explicit prohibitions on elected municipal officials’ political activities.
Under Bangor’s code of ethics, city councilors and their appointees should be nonpartisan and not favor a political party or participate in an election campaign when identified or associated with their council role, among other restrictions.
Councilors can participate in political campaigns, but only while “explicitly separating” that activity from their roles as elected councilors or appointees.
Such prohibitions do not seem to be common in municipalities nationwide, said Daniel Hopkins, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who studies political behavior at the municipal level. But restrictions like those in Bangor, he said, could counteract the increasing presence across the country of national politics in municipal debates.
Statements from municipal officials on national politics have become more common since the 1990s, as political partisanship has heightened, Hopkins said. That trend has strengthened as Americans have increasingly turned to national news outlets, including those with a partisan bent. Recently in Maine, a number of towns have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, with those towns’ officials asserting their views in a national debate over which they have little influence.
“When a national question fuses with local politics, it’s like a lightning rod,” Hopkins said. “It’s an opportunity to make their national passions heard at a local level.”
Waterville has a code of ethics similar to Bangor’s. It prohibits elected officials and city employees from any political activity “in conflict or incompatible” with their municipal role.
The code prohibits elected or appointed officials from using their status to participate in elections or solicit political contributions. They are also prohibited from wearing political pins or distributing pamphlets while performing city functions.
The restrictions on political activity in Bangor’s code of ethics are in line with the city’s charter, said Michael Alpert, chair of the city’s board of ethics. The charter states that city officials should be “independent, impartial and responsible to citizens.”
Bangor officials put in such rules because of the potential for weighty national issues to disrupt work on local problems and prevent officials with different political views from working together, Alpert said.
“The idea is that party affiliation would interfere with the kind of fluidity that you need to have for good local governance,” he said.
Alpert said he was looking forward to examining the city’s rules with the rest of the board of ethics.
Like Bangor’s, Waterville’s code allows elected officials and appointees to engage in political speech as private citizens. They should not list their titles when doing so.
Former Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, who was first elected in 2014, weighed into several partisan matters while mayor, including gun control, immigration and the celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day. He was also elected vice chair of the Maine Republican Party while mayor.
While most of Maine’s most populous cities and towns do not explicitly restrict political speech from councilors, they all generally require councilors to be fair and incorruptible.
Several codes and charters contain other restrictions on political activity. In Sanford and Augusta, there are regulations on political activities by active police officers. In Biddeford, it’s members of the board of assessment who can’t participate in political activities — a prohibition the code says is in line with the federal Hatch Act of 1939.