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There seems to be a lot of dysfunction going around small Maine towns as of late. Shutdowns in services after town employees leave, disagreement about how town money is handled and when to hold elections. Difficulty finding new staff with the skills and experience needed to replace a wave of retirees. There are several challenges at play here, and they all seem to add up to headaches for town governments and the people they serve.
As a public administration educator recently told Bangor Daily News reporter Valerie Royzman, Maine municipalities are experiencing dysfunction for “a cacophony of reasons.”
Town managers, clerks and other staff facing burnout. The retirement of longtime, experienced staff. Apparent gaps in existing training availability to prepare the next generation of municipal workers. In this challenging labor market, it’s been hard to attract people to jobs that sometimes have difficult hours and tedious responsibilities.
These are just some of the challenges on display in Royzman’s story and in towns across the state. Some of them point to longstanding, overlapping statewide workforce and education challenges. Many of them require long-term, sustained policy action from state and local government officials.
Of the many challenges facing municipalities beset with some level of dysfunction, however, there is one that every member of each community can help address: the polarized political environment and the way it can make tough jobs even tougher.
Municipal government can be frustrating, both for those actively engaged in it and the people served by it. Mistakes sometimes get made, and local officials need to be held accountable by the public and the press. But there’s an important difference between accountability and hostility.
We’ve said it many times related to town clerks and other election officials during campaign season, and it really applies to how people should interact with all local officials and municipal staff: turn down the rhetoric and anger.
Despite the efforts of some, most notably former President Donald Trump, to foster distrust of critical institutions and the people who help make them work, we must not let conspiracy overpower decency. There are many state- and societywide challenges that individuals aren’t going to be able to fix on their own, but we all can control how we treat local officials.
“We are having difficulties, but it doesn’t mean the end of the world is coming,” Kate Dufour of the Maine Municipal Association told Royzman. “There are solutions that are going to take time to implement.”
One immediate solution, in which everyone can take part, is turning down the hyperpoliticized temperature that has risen across America and all levels of government.