Recent resolutions stridently opposing Gov. Janet Mills’ COVID-19 measures from commissioners in Androscoggin and Piscataquis counties have focused new attention on a level of government that seldom attracts much notice.
All 16 of Maine’s counties are governed by county commissioners, but their power is generally limited to setting budgets for sheriff’s offices, jails and a few other functions, as well as some local matters in the sparsely populated unorganized territories.
Their relative lack of direct influence coupled with the public’s general lack of interest in the positions make county commissions ripe for overt partisanship, according to experts and those with experience in Maine county government.
However, the resolutions in Androscoggin and Piscataquis counties that contain misinformation and distortions about COVID-19 prevention measures have already given rise to new citizen activism focused on the often obscure positions.
The Piscataquis County resolution — which refers to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan Virus” and says masks cause pneumonia and respiratory disease — passed last month, while Androscoggin County commissioners have yet to vote on their proposed resolution. The resolutions have inspired petitions, efforts to recall commissioners and new political organizations — all unusual at the county commissioner level.
Political scientists often refer to county governments as “forgotten governments,” as they have long existed in the shadows across the U.S., but especially in New England, said Justin de Benedictis-Kessner, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who researches county governments.
In the face of little direct influence over policy and little public attention, “a county government official has this huge incentive to, say, make a public proclamation about how much they hate masks, even if they are not going to be able to affect that type of policy,” Benedictis-Kessner said.
Such actions, he said, draw attention to county government, potentially giving commissioners a way to gain public support in areas where much of the population is skeptical of COVID-19 prevention measures and usually unaware of what their county commissioners do.
They illustrate how susceptible county governments are to partisan political forces. Benedictis-Kessner’s work — done in collaboration with Christopher Warsaw of George Washington University — has found that partisanship generally associated with state and national politics is alive and well in the county commissioner form of government. For example, the election of Democratic rather than Republican commissioners leads to a 5 percent increase in county spending, Benedictis-Kessner and Warsaw’s research found.
Piscataquis County is Maine’s most Republican county by most measures: It has the highest percentage of registered Republican voters (39 percent) and had the highest Republican margin of victory in Maine’s 2020 presidential, 2020 U.S. Senate and 2018 gubernatorial elections.
Piscataquis’s three commissioners, all Republicans, unanimously approved the resolution.
Androscoggin County, on the other hand, ranks near the middle in terms of GOP support. In the 2018 gubernatorial race, the county voted for Republican Shawn Moody over Mills by 4.6 percentage points, compared with Moody’s 16.4-percentage point margin of victory in Piscataquis County. Republicans hold four of the seven county commissioner seats.
Highlighting the relative lack of interest in the position, most candidates for county commissioner run unopposed, with 61 percent of races since 2010 having only one candidate, according to records from the Maine Secretary of State’s office. In Aroostook County, the three county commissioners have run unopposed in every race since 2010.
Androscoggin County Commissioner Isaiah Lary, who introduced the recent anti-mask resolution, was elected last year in an unopposed race. Piscataquis County Commissioner Wayne Erkkinen was elected unopposed in 2020, as was Chair James White in 2018. Andrew Torbett, the Piscataquis County commissioner who crafted that county’s anti-mask resolution, had opponents in both the primary and general elections last year.
Democrats make up the majority of county commissioners in half of Maine’s 16 counties: Cumberland, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Penobscot, Sagadahoc, Waldo and York. Six counties — Androscoggin, Franklin, Hancock, Oxford, Piscataquis and Washington — have Republican majorities.
Aroostook County’s three commissioners are evenly divided — one Republican, one Democrat and one independent — while Somerset is the only Maine county that elects commissioners without party affiliation.
Commissioners are used to making county-level decisions and feel they “should have some say in what goes on” at the state and national levels, said Maine County Commissioners Association Administrator Lauren Haven, who didn’t comment specifically on the Piscataquis and Androscoggin resolutions.
Haven described the job of county commissioner as “pretty thankless,” a position that officeholders would generally hold alongside one or two other jobs.
Peter Baldacci, a Democrat who has served as a Penobscot County commissioner since 1989, said the resolutions in Piscataquis and Androscoggin counties were saddening, representing the politicization of a public health issue during a global pandemic.
“This is a distraction,” Baldacci said. “We don’t need to be arguing about something that is common sense to protect our fellow citizens.”
However, the resolutions reflect more on the two counties from which they emerged than the county commissioner form of government, he said. He noted that Republicans in the Maine Legislature have expressed similar opinions.
All counties “have a unique flavor,” Baldacci said. “We look at Piscataquis as a rural, conservative county. They are probably more in line with their constituency.”
There’s an important discussion to be had about Mills’ COVID-19 policies, but some of the extreme language in the Androscoggin and Piscataquis resolutions “probably” distracted from their message, said Lance Harvell, a Republican who was elected as a Franklin County Commissioner in November after four terms in the Maine House.
“The Republican Party, right now, is in major upheaval,” Harvell said. “And so, some of that language finds itself right in.”
Harvell — who served in the House from 2009 to 2014, then from 2016 to 2018 — said he immediately noticed increased partisanship in the Legislature when he returned after a two-year absence.
One byproduct of the two recent resolutions could be more contested county commissioner races in the future, as well as more attention focused on county commissioners in the meantime.
Lesley Fernow, a retired physician who is a member of the newly formed Piscataquis Regional Organization for ACTion, said this year marked the first time she was engaged enough to regularly attend county commissioners’ meetings.
With Piscataquis County seeing one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the state, Fernow said many in the county felt that they were going to “dodge” the bullet of COVID-19.
But the reality is far more complex, she said. Dexter Healthcare, a nursing home that has recently seen an outbreak that has infected 74 residents and employees, is in Penobscot County, but is located minutes from Dover-Foxcroft, the Piscataquis County seat.
Fernow and other activists who started their organization in response to the county commissioners’ resolution are planning to present a petition to the commissioners asking that they rescind their original resolution in favor of one that removes the phrase “Wuhan Virus” and the misinformation.
“I really hope that we can work toward a more cooperative, less contentious and confrontational government,” Fernow said.