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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Most of the nation marks 231 years of independence today with parades, picnics, fireworks, but the people of Chebeague Island, Maine, are celebrating just three days of self-government. In fact, the islanders staged their first ever fireworks display Sunday night.

(Soundbite of fireworks)

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

MONTAGNE: The people of Chebeague Island had been governed by mainland towns since 1746. But on Sunday, the island became its own town. It's now independent and busy building a government from scratch.

NPR's Howard Berkes has just returned from Chebeague.

(Soundbite of flowing water)

HOWARD BERKES: The dawn of independence at Chebeague Island, Maine, began with a purifying rain, a sun, sky and sea glowing red, and hymns at a sunrise service.

(Soundbite of song, "Morning Has Broken")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning…

BERKES: A hundred voices sang at 5 a.m. last Sunday at the Chebeague boat yard, amid lobster and fishing boats waiting repair. The faithful needed the rest of the Sabbath for their first official acts of self-government.

(Soundbite of song, "Morning Has Broken")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) …rain every morning, God's recreation of the new day.

BERKES: The night before, families gathered at another Chebeague beach to roast marshmallows over a campfire. That's where geologist Carol White, a mother of two, explained the desire for secession after 260 years of governing by mainland towns across Casco Bay.

Ms. CAROL WHITE (Geologist; Resident, Chebeague Island): It was about the school. The school was certain with closure or potential future closure and we really had to look at the question of how do we had to look at the question of how we protect the school, and then do we need to secede from the town of Cumberland?

BERKES: The town of Cumberland is a Portland suburb of 7,000. And it's commuting professionals earn twice as much for capita as the 350 islanders on Chebeague. They also include some commuters, as well as fishermen, mariners, retirees and working stiffs.

Their island is a cash cow, with valuable waterfront property and 1,200 summer visitors. Property tax money float out of Chebeague by the millions, but islanders didn't rebel until the perceived threat to their elementary school.

Ms. WHITE: Young families with children need a place to send their kids to school, and if there is no school, the only other alternative would be to ship the kids to the mainland. And at ages of five to 10, they're really too young to send them back and forth to the mainland. And for the island, we were very certain that if we lost the school, we would lose the year-round community.

BERKES: So after two years of lobbying and negotiations and a bill passed by the state legislature, Chebeague won its independence.

Unidentified Woman: Good morning.

Unidentified Group: Good morning.

Unidentified Woman: And welcome to the first town meeting of great Chebeague Island, July 1st, 2007.

(Soundbite of applause)

BERKES: Every folding chair was filled in the island gym, and it was standing room only on the fringes. Registered voters held fluorescent green cards, ready to raise them high when it came time to vote. They had a 110 items on the agenda, including the school and town budgets, establishing town jobs, and managing waste, traffic, boating, shellfish, elections, animals, cemeteries and more. It took four hours, but half the island's voters had already spent months on developing this framework of government. They even had help from the place they'd rejected.

Mr. STEVE MORIARTY (Chair, Cumberland Town Council): It doesn't come easy. It doesn't come cheaply. There was more work than could possibly be imagined at the outset. It's remarkable to watch it unfold.

BERKES: Attorney Steve Moriarty chairs the Cumberland Town Council. He says he was hurt by the secession effort, given the two-century link between the island and the town. But he was impressed by the passion for self-government and convinced that the suburb and the island had drifted apart.

Mr. MORIARTY: You have to understand that you can't even get from mainland Cumberland directly to Chebeague. You can only get there though one of two other towns. They are clearly distinct culturally and geographically, and once the details of separation are arrived at, folks in Cumberland were prepared to let Chebeague move on, chart its own course.

BERKES: The details include a $5 million settlement with the school district in town. That pays Chebeague's share of outstanding debt, and covers the value of building, equipments and roads. Some payments will continue for 10 years. Chebeague generates $2 million a year in property taxes, so it could be a struggle. But islanders are determined. Tasting independence has moved them.

Ms. MABEL DOUGHTY(ph) (Resident, Chebeague Island): Hi, I'm Mabel Doughty on Chebeague Island. I'm 85 years old.

BERKES: One islander describes Mabel Doughty this way: petite but outspoken and strong, made of the not supine. She's had a life of fishing and raising a fishing family on Chebeague.

Ms. DOUGHTY: It's more of a sense that this is ours. Now I think before that, we felt that those people on the mainland, that somehow they owned the island. We're going to be our own people. And it is a little bit feeling what the people who did the Declaration of Independence - they fought so hard to get there, just as we have. And, I think that from now on, let's say, the Fourth of July is going to have great meaning for those of us on the island.

BERKES: Chebeague's newly hired town administrator is also moved. Ron Granier(ph) is new to the island after a career as a government auditor.

Mr. RYAN GRANIER (Town Administrator, Chebeague Island): The people want the right to decide for themselves what kind of government they want. How are they willing to be taxed? All of those things harken back to many, many, many years ago for our country. And it's just remarkable here in 2007 that it's the same, the same themes, the same desire, still plays out to this very day.

BERKES: Islanders encounter some aspects of independence the founding fathers never imagined. They had to prepare a detailed genealogical chart to make sure public officials don't inadvertently hire relatives given seven generations in some island families.

They have to be careful about casual conversations on the island ferry to keep from violating open meeting law. Board member Herb Maine sat in the new and noisy town hall Saturday, a converted backroom at the firehouse, concerned that Chebeague will end up like the rest of the country - divided and bitter over politics.

Mr. HERB MAINE (Board Member, Chebeague Island): I think everybody here, you know, wants it to work. But it's easy to see how that can happen.

BERKES: It sounds like you want to demonstrate that it's still possible to do democracy right.

Mr. MAINE: Well, I have faith that it's still possible to do democracy right, at least in a community of this size. And I think it's the best system for this particular community to define itself in a way that it never has before.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) There's a place that I call paradise. It's not too far away. It's a place that all the Maine folks, and they call it Castaway.

BERKES: That's one of the new town board members on lead vocals as his band played at a celebration Sunday. Islanders watched from lawn chairs and blankets. Some danced and clapped. They will now govern an area of sand, rock and forest a mile wide and four miles long. There's no complaining to anyone else if things don't work. Chebeague Island, Maine is in their hands now.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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