Our ‘town’? While cities grow, most of Maine local government stuck in 17th century

Posted July 19, 2013, at 7:16 p.m.
Last modified July 20, 2013, at 10:50 a.m.

Mainers live in a changing state, but community governance, which prioritizes local control, has remained largely unchanged for centuries.

Census data from 2010 show the demographic shift expected by many: growth in urban cores around Bangor, Portland and Lewiston-Auburn and decline of the state’s northern and eastern rural population. Those changes have economic consequences too. Greater Portland now accounts for the majority of the state’s economic activity.

But while populations shift and the state changes, the basic forms of civic organization that govern the vast majority of Mainers are still decidedly 17th century. More than 70 percent of Mainers live in towns, where the town meeting form of government is by far the most common.

Residents, rather than an elected legislative council, gather once per year to approve each line of the budget and approve or deny any legislation. It’s a form of government foreign to people outside New England, where authority is less local, and its origins are in the pre-revolutionary Puritan Congregationalist Church.

“This all comes out of 17th century Protestantism, which is really the dominant form of most of New England’s government,” said Charlie Colgan, professor of public policy at the Muskie School of Public Policy.

Colgan said that Maine’s civil organization, with strong towns and weak counties, is largely an accident of history. And for better or worse, we are slaves to that past.

“The political culture is very much a function of an area’s history, and how it was founded,” he said. “It usually influences what goes on there for a very long time, even as things modernized and changed.”

Maine’s newest city

One southern Maine town, the state’s largest, decided to break with the past. This week, Sanford celebrated its designation as America’s newest city.

Last year, residents approved a new charter which changed the form of government there and made it clear that Sanford, formerly a town, was a city. It was part of a branding and marketing effort to attract new development and business to the struggling former mill town.

The change was made official on Jan. 1. Brad Littlefield, a city councilor who supported the new charter, said the change was important in making people outside Sanford, population 20,798, understand the nature of the place.

“When people think of a town, especially in New England, they think of a little village with one country store,” he said. “When they think of cities, they think of services and business and infrastructure. … That’s the reason we did it. We wanted people from outside, who had no sense of Sanford, to understand what we are.”

Sanford’s change was far from universally accepted, however. The change was approved 4,517 to 3,630 in the Nov. 6 election. Some residents worried that Sanford would lose its small-town appeal and that the designation change wouldn’t draw more businesses anyway.

No other town had become a city since Caribou in 1967. Eric Conrad, spokesman for Maine Municipal Association, said he’s unaware of any other towns, large or not, considering becoming cities.

City? Town? Whatever

In Maine, the distinction between a “city” and “town” is legally meaningless, according to Conrad. According to MMA data, there are 492 municipalities in Maine, of which all but 60 are towns (23 cities, 34 plantations and three Indian reservations).

Generally, towns operate under a town meeting form of government, while cities in the state operate with a representative council and manager. But many towns — especially in southern Maine — also have this “city” form of government.

Brunswick is about the same size as Sanford, in terms of population and area. Both were settled in the mid-18th century. Both are former mill towns.

But Brunswick is more than happy with its identity as a town, according to Don Gerrish, the town’s former manager. Gerrish is a Brunswick resident who managed Brunswick for 20 years until his retirement in 2009.

“Brunswick is the [eighth] largest community in Maine, and we could easily be considered a city,” he said. “But I think Brunswick likes the feel of the name ‘town.’ It has a more friendly feeling to it.”

Farther up the coast, Eastport would fit most people’s image of a town: A small but picturesque downtown at the center of a 12-square-mile municipal boundary. Just 1,331 people live in the island-bound community.

Around the time Eastport incorporated as a city in the late 19th century, it was home to more than a dozen sardine canneries and more than 5,000 people. And while the canneries and most of the people are now gone, Eastport isn’t any more interested in becoming a town than Brunswick is in becoming a city.

“It’s more a distinction of pride than reality,” said City Manager Larry Post. “We like the fact that we can say, ‘We’re the easternmost city in the U.S.’”

Colgan, the public policy professor, said the large towns and small cities in Maine don’t want to give up on the identity shaped by their histories — even if that identity no longer fits the reality on the ground.

“What happens is the citizens don’t want to admit they’ve changed already, and don’t want to admit they should change,” he said. “Eastport was once a very thriving city, with the canneries. It was quite a bustling place. And they choose to remain a city, largely, I think, in hopes they’d become one again. … Brunswick doesn’t want to admit it’s large now. They still want to think of themselves as a small town.”

Disappearing entirely

While changing populations and industry bases might not push Mainers to rethink their civic identities and affiliations, something else seems to work: taxes.

Atkinson, a town of 326 in Piscataquis County, will vote in November on whether to deorganize its community and become the 442nd Unorganized Territory in the state. Bancroft, a town of 60 in Aroostook County, is also attempting to deorganize. The Washington County town of Centerville broke apart in 2004. Madrid, in Franklin County, disbanded in 2000.

In the past 100 years, 40 Maine towns have deorganized. Others have tried to disband, but failed to garner necessary votes in the Legislature or at the ballot box. Most split up because the population base shriveled to a level that no longer could support the infrastructure of a town, such as a staff payroll and basic municipal services.

Colgan said he predicts in the coming decades, as more people leave rural Maine, more and more towns no longer will see any value in staying incorporated.

“You’ve already seen the leading edge of this, where we’ve seen towns deorganize,” he said. “There’s a lot of interior western and central Maine where this will become a very serious issue.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.