Americans are living in a fraught era, where headlines abound about our politically polarized nation and where most folks have dwindling confidence in the federal government.
The polarization can be apparent on the local level, too, notably when activists fighting the culture wars have made a stink at Maine school board meetings about mask requirements, children’s books and other hot-button issues.
However, small town select boards and city councils seem to have avoided at least some of the vitriol. A recent query of midcoast elected officials reveals that roads and taxes still top the list of constituent concerns. And that even when residents get angry about decisions made or controversies unspooling in their communities, there is still often a chance to find common ground.
“You can’t make 100 percent of the people 100 percent happy all the time,” Unity Selectman Penny Sampson said this week. “There’s always going to be disagreements. I guess it’s how you deal with the disagreements. And the next time something comes up, the people who were happy with you previously are going to be unhappy.”
To Sampson — who has served on the board since 2014 and has endured some heated discussions in that time, including a debate over whether to make Unity a Second Amendment sanctuary community — it seems like the job hasn’t changed much over the years.
In fact, she recently happened to be paging through an annual town report from 1901 and noticed some surprising similarities.
“It’s the same stuff. The same things are still going on,” she said. “They were talking about town indebtedness, and why people don’t pay their taxes, and how the town should be run like a business. This is kind of an eye-opener, that 121 years later, there’s still the same concerns.”
To those who appreciate the power of tradition, and solid Maine pastimes like complaining about roads, that likely seems reassuring. If Washington, D.C. sometimes feels broken, local Maine councils and select boards continue to roll along, drafting budgets, fixing potholes and funding new library books. Elected officials receive stipends, but with long hours and sometimes-disgruntled constituents, it is not a job anyone does for the money.
“In Northport, it seems that everybody is trying to stay focused on the things that we can have an impact on,” said Breanna Pinkham Bebb, who was elected to her town’s selectboard last year. “There seems to be a general shared sense of responsibility to the taxpayers, and also to providing services that a town is supposed to provide.”
But that’s not to say it’s always smooth sailing for local elected officials, who are grappling with the real estate boom that has brought more people from out of state to Maine and added to the age-old tensions between longtime residents and people from away.
Mary Mortier, a Belfast city councilor, said that the influx of newcomers can be helpful in that many people are volunteering to serve on local boards, such as the Belfast Climate Crisis Committee and the Energy Committee.
“That’s a good thing. We will all benefit in some way, shape or form from that involvement,” she said. “That’s the positive aspect. The challenging aspect relates to budget discussions and the amount of property taxes that people in the community have to pay. The challenge is … where people haven’t done their homework and they’re kind of living in the world where they came from.”
In Camden, Alison McKellar, who has served on the selectboard for almost five years, has not been afraid to broach controversial topics. Those include adding sidewalks and paid parking downtown, and even possibly removing the Montgomery Dam, a 200-year-old piece of infrastructure in the heart of the community.
Over the years, she has become used to people letting her know exactly how they feel about such ideas. Sometimes, that can be a lot, such as what happened in a memorable experience in downtown Camden earlier this summer.
“A guy got out of his car and screamed at me about this sidewalk bump out that’s going in front of French & Brawn,” she said. “He was just going on and on. He was really angry.”
The man swore at her, and said that she was ruining the town. McKellar wrote about what had happened in the Camden Herald.
“The ‘town’ is an easy and logical scapegoat for pretty much all that is wrong out in the world in our daily lives, and in many cases, government really is the logical entity that should be fixing one thing or another,” she wrote. “Government, in fact, is the only thing that can sometimes, but only if we remember that the government is all of us.”
Still, she said, it’s not so bad — most of the time. Underneath the vitriol is usually a reasonable grievance, and if she can have a conversation with people, even when they’re angry, they usually can find areas of agreement.
But coping with debate, anger and controversy can take a toll, including burnout of elected officials.
“So many people that run for select board, or do it for a little while, they end up quitting before they can be super effective,” McKellar said. “They would be able to do more if they could stay longer, if they really learn how the system works, and the amount of planning necessary to accomplish anything. I think it’s sad that we don’t work more on the basis of civic engagement, and how to emotionally cope with disagreement.”
Disagreement is something that is familiar to anyone who has followed Belfast municipal government in recent years. Councilors and community members, at odds over the proposed land-based salmon farm, endured long, often difficult council meetings, and sometimes accusations, raised voices and enmity.
But even though the farm has not yet been built, such fraught arguments seem to be a thing of the past, according to Councilor Neal Harkness.
“I think that a lot of people on both sides just got worn down,” he said.
What he’s noticing is that people are back to flagging him down at the Hannaford to tell him about a storm water issue, or to share how their grown children can’t find an apartment to rent in Belfast.
“Those are the kinds of things I’m seeing now,” he said. “It’s more people being upset about the housing cost, that sort of thing, than national politics. People are more pleading with you to figure out what to do about it — not mad at you about it.”