Liking the nuances and beauty of small town government, the Downeast way

There are two things people generally have a hard time talking about, religion and politics. For some reason these two subjects often create controversy, heated discussions and a high risk of bad feelings among friends, acquaintances, and even family members. Government, too, can cause some trepidation to one wanting to talk about it or possibly pursue a career in it because it too is directly tied to politics. And given this year’s very unusual primary season, conversations on the subject are running rampant and the fever pitch is high.

Being here now close to a year, my wife and I are experiencing for the first time a different type of government. We are being treated to a more direct and slower paced form of government. This small town approach is intriguing and we continue to learn the nuances of its political system. The term “town fathers” was dropped at a meeting I recently attended, and I found it fascinating that someone was referring to our elected officials, the selectmen, in that manner. But as I sat and thought more about it, it made sense because it quietly called for respect to the position and had an old time feel to it, and that too made sense, given our town was settled in 1763.

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The word father seems to be imbedded in this place we call Downeast because here family is very important. The bonds of family are strong because this area can be a hard place to live. It is known to be intimidating. The stark remoteness, the unpredictable weather and the lack of jobs are catalysts for relying on one another. The family members support each other by talking and working together. This reliance on each other becomes the healing balm for whatever is ailing, at any given time. This can also be said of a community and its elected officials who are given the responsibility to both listen to and lead a town toward its future. It is a government process that is still firmly rooted in this place as well as many others across New England, and its history goes back a very long time.

This type of government began with the Puritans and the founding of the Plymouth Colony in 1620. Determined to make a go of it, the community members placed their decisions and ultimately their lives in the hands of a selected few, the Pilgrim Fathers. It was a government quite literally acting on and for the voice of the people. The first meeting of the Continental Congress in 1774 would also give rise to the term Founding Fathers to future scholars and historians, again in reference to a selected few who guided the fledgling nation in the early days of its existence.

Today in many New England towns, the Board of Selectmen is made up of three, five or sometimes seven representatives elected by the community. They are for all intents and purposes the executive branch of local government and are relied upon to set public policy, develop and manage budgets, issue licenses and set fees, oversee other appointed bodies, and call for elections. Many if not all of these major decisions are then presented and voted upon at a town meeting. It is here where the community membership can voice opinion and ultimately decide the future of the town. But lack of communication can also be the weak link to this form of government if public attendance and participation is absent when the decisions are finally put to a vote.

What I have seen here and believe to be the case pretty much in the other towns that dot the Downeast coast are the elected few assigned to fulfill their roles as leaders of a community or family, if you will. This role carries with it a parental element of responsibility which then is carried out with the communities consent. And when it works right, and there are many participating in the process, the town meeting makes for an interesting evening to watch, take part in and see it all come together.

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So whether it be town father or mother for that matter, selectmen or town council, the responsibility that comes with the moniker is huge and should never be taken lightly or for granted and should always be respected. And just as families typically have children who share in the family decision making process, public participation in this particular form of government is the voice of the community or town family if you will. If it is used, the family grows and prospers; if it is not, the family will drift apart. For myself, now a part of the community, this form of government presents a real opportunity to test the merits of one voice, one vote to its full potential, and I for one, do not intend to miss out on that privilege.

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over a year ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.