John Clark remembering past experiences with Maine town meetings, as well as what goes on behind the scenes in order for them to happen. If you live in a city or larger municipality, chances are you’ve never had a chance to be part of a Maine town meeting. They’re one of the purest forms of democracy, but sadly, a very small percentage of eligible citizens bother to go. However, that doesn’t stop those same people from bitching for the next 354 days about the results. Town meetings can be contentious, loud, messy and unpredictable and I can pretty much guarantee you won’t be able to predict their length. Expect one to drag on and it might be over in 45 minutes. Think there are no controversial articles and someone will beat one to death, generally something like how frequently the town crew will mow the cemetery where dear Aunt Bertha has been resting for the last 70 years.
Long before the meeting date, generally on a Saturday, other things must happen. In most Maine localities, the town manager prepares a budget, usually while painfully aware that no matter how prudent it might be, someone will be unhappy. Following that, the budget committee meets in an open forum to review each line item. After discussion and public input, committee members either accept the manager’s figure, or amend it up or down. While most people think the town manager and budget committee have discretion over most or all of the budget, that’s not the case. In Hartland, for instance, we’re at the mercy of the water company for hydrant rental, this year’s figure, $109,100, likewise the county budget (where Somerset got completely screwed by LePage when our new jail was built, but that’s a tale for another day) and school funding (which would be bearable if the legislature ever funded it at the 55% mandated twice by Maine voters).
I chaired this years budget committee which met last night where we went through the roughly 1.6 million budget in just under 2 houirs with almost unanimous agreement. In addition to reviewing all the line items necessary to run Hartland, we decided on which requests from charitable and civic organizations to approve. Last year, for example, there was sentiment not to approve $500 for the Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center which serves Kennebec and Somerset Counties. I advocated strongly for them and the money was approved. This year, I was asked by the selectmen to get figures regarding that group’s involvement with Hartland residents. When I shared them, there was no dissent.
Following the budget process, we’ll learn who’s running for selectman and the budget committee. Terms for both are staggered and we’re likely to have a contested race for the open selectman seat this time around. Hartland is on the verge of a simmering issue that could well fracture the town and anything and everything from the budget meetings through town meeting in May will be interesting, to say the least.
Voting is held the Friday before town meeting. A month or so before then, the town report will be out. Most in town will give it a cursory look at best, but it’s an interesting document to peruse. You’ll learn how many births and deaths occurred last year, how many fire/ambulance calls the volunteer fire department answered, and letters from the recreation group, the food cupboard and the library will be included. You’ll also be able to see who hasn’t paid their property taxes. Fogler Library at the University of Maine has been active in digitizing as many town reports as possible which can be a useful resource if you’re trying to get a picture of what local government was like in the past. (https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/towndocs/).
The actual town meeting is an interesting beast. When I ran for the legislature, I began my campaign by attending the Cambridge town meeting. 103 voters attended the 4 hour meeting (Total population is around 480). Unless there’s a really hot issue, chances are that less than 75 will show in most small towns. If the municipality is lucky, they have someone who is willing and capable to serve as town moderator. We have two. One is a lawyer, the other a member of the Maine State Police. At some point in the meeting, there’s a break so people can purchase refreshments, provided by a civic organization. In Hartland, it’s the Couples Club and this will be our second year of adding a pie auction to the mix with funds going to our scholarship fund. With our eloquent attorney out of town this year, I have the dubious honor of shilling pastries on the first Saturday in May. Stay tuned for updates.