Rural Maine Towns Give Up on Self-Government Some towns in rural Maine are ceasing to exist as independent entities, instead putting local decisions in the hands of distant state bureaucrats. They are giving up a tradition of pure democracy.
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Rural Maine Towns Give Up on Self-Government

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Rural Maine Towns Give Up on Self-Government

Rural Maine Towns Give Up on Self-Government

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Some towns in the state of Maine are getting out of the business of government. They're ceasing to exist as towns, putting local decisions in the hands of distant state bureaucrats.

INSKEEP: This is the opposite of the kind of government many of us say we want. That may be especially true in New England, which has a centuries-long tradition of annual town meetings. New Englanders claim it's the purest form of democracy, where citizens directly determine policies and budgets. That's the tradition, anyway. NPR's Howard Berkes reports on why some towns in rural Maine have had enough of self-government.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

These towns are giving up on pure democracy, on the New England town meeting, which was celebrated in 1835 in Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," and it still gets people all misty-eyed. Here's Mark Lapping, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern Maine.

Professor MARK LAPPING (University of Southern Maine): It's very, very hands-on. You really see the dance of democracy right in front of your eyes. This place was always about, and still is about, I think, local people making local decisions as much as possible about the things which affect their lives.

BERKES: And here's Doreen Sheive, a Maine native and state official.

Ms. DOREEN SHEIVE (Fiscal Administrator, Unorganized Territory): Town meeting was a social gathering for families and a big fight for everybody that was an adult. But the enjoyment of it was it was always contentious. As a little girl, sitting in my grandmother's kitchen with my two uncles, getting all beyond themselves, I just was just thrilled with that. I thought that was the greatest thing that could ever happen. And that is what our democracy is about. To give that up is just unbelievable to me.

BERKES: Sheive sees the smallest towns giving up. She's the fiscal administrator of what's called the unorganized territory, a vast region of sparsely inhabited forests and unincorporated places, mostly in Northern Maine. It's half the state, bigger than the state of Maryland, with about 8,000 people. Nine towns joined the unorganized territory in the past two decades. A dozen more have shown interest, given the burdens of governing and rising taxes.

Ms. SHEIVE: It's sad--sad, sad, sad--that you have people giving up hundreds of years of local control and pride in their community. Someone came in and set up Cooper in 1822, two years after the state of Maine came to be. They've been a town since 1822.

(Soundbite of waves lapping onshore)

BERKES: Cooper is a scattered collection of homes up north in the Downeast region of the state, where Cathance Lake cuts into spruce woods. Imagine close to 3,000 acres of steel-blue water, shaped like the wingspread of a butterfly. It's a place for coyotes and loons and snapping turtles, and people now paying big bucks for waterfront views. Kathleen Hull owns and runs the market in Cooper.

Ms. KATHLEEN HULL (Market Owner): I mean, something that was worth maybe 40,000 for a lot on the lake--now $40,000--you can't get anything under 150,000 anymore, and there are some properties, actually, at half a million now, and that was unheard of five years ago. If I would have known five years ago, I would have bought up as much shorefront--but the boom has started and it's--I've lost my chance.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

BERKES: Most of Cooper's 145 residents are stretched out along a two-lane state highway for seven and a half miles. There's the store at one end, a firehouse at the other and a grange hall in between, but there's no Main Street, no downtown, no sidewalks, no streetlights, no school and no change in the speed limit. There's also no visible difference, at 50 miles an hour or 20, between the town itself and the unorganized territory it borders, except on tax bills, which reflect rising property values. John Johnson is a retired teacher who grew up on Cathance Lake.

Mr. JOHN JOHNSON (Retired Schoolteacher): I have property just a hundred yards down the road, and I have property in Cooper, which--property in Cooper is much higher because it's an organized town. I think the mill rate is something like 8 down there, where up here it's around 23 or 24.

BERKES: So your taxes are two to three times greater within the town limits of Cooper than they are on your property just beyond the town limits.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes. Yes, that's exactly right.

BERKES: Here's the difference: The state arranges basic functions of government in the unorganized territory. There are no town officials and no town workers. The costs of governing are shared among all the people and businesses in the entire unorganized region. So dissolve a town, join the unjoined, and the tax burden plummets. But there's more to this than money, insists Kathleen Hull at the Cooper market.

Ms. HULL: The one reason I'm for deorganizing is that the state keeps putting more and more on us. Animal control officer--that's become a major thing. For a town to get an animal control officer, you almost have to pay him thousands a year, and we can't afford that. Same thing with code enforcement officer. They keep putting more and more mandates, and it's like we just cannot take any more.

BERKES: Hull knows this because she has four town jobs.

Ms. HULL: Tax collector, town clerk, treasurer and registrar of voters.

BERKES: For which she's paid about $8,000 a year--total.

Is it tough to find people to do these town jobs?

Ms. HULL: Well, last year, February '04, I gave my notice. This is my last year and I can't do it anymore 'cause the store is getting busy, and I have two children. And nobody came forth, and that's where we stand. Still nobody has shown an interest.

BERKES: Still, there's passion for self-government in Cooper. Stuart Shotwell is a freelance writer and editor who finds it ironic that the nation is fighting in Iraq...

Mr. STUART SHOTWELL (Freelance Writer, Editor): Ostensibly to bring democracy to that country, and we are not paying enough attention to our own fiscal problems in this country to enable our basic, local democratic institutions to survive.

BERKES: Yet Shotwell has not responded to Hull's call for help.

Mr. SHOTWELL: That's a tricky question for me, because I'm a little too busy to do that. But if enough energy were spent, we could find creative ways to solve that problem. That's an excuse. Primary motive is to save money on taxes.

BERKES: Whatever the reason, the town of Cooper has asked the state to take over, to put state bureaucrats in charge.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BERKES: One hundred seventy miles from Cooper, past blueberry fields, forests and lakes, lawmakers and state officials fill the Capitol rotunda in Augusta. If Cooper dissolves as a town, these people will rule them, assessing taxes, assigning schools, establishing policy and arranging snowplowing, road maintenance and more. There won't be a board of selectmen or town meeting or school board to turn to, just Doreen Sheive and her state colleagues who manage the unorganized territory.

Ms. SHEIVE: The only advantage they will see is their tax bill will decrease. But that's the only advantage they're going to see. They have absolutely no local control. They have no right to make a decision on their own. If you deorganize, that is gone forever. Makes me want to cry. I'm serious. It's sad.

BERKES: Back in Cooper, the senior selectman in town is unapologetic. Jon Reisman teaches government at the University of Maine in Machias. He describes himself as a conservative Republican who believes in lifting the yoke of centralized government. How does he square that with putting Cooper under state control?

Mr. JON REISMAN (University of Maine, Machias): I guess I believe in freedom. Maybe that's the hallmark of conservatism to me. And the amount of freedom people have here is being severely curtailed by the level of taxes. So would we have less freedom if more decisions were made in Augusta? Yes, but we'd also have half the tax, so I guess that was the price of freedom.

BERKES: Maine lawmakers have put off till January Cooper's quest for dependence. They probably won't resolve the tax problem, which they've struggled with for years, but they'll try to help Cooper address the challenges of being a town. If they fail, people in Cooper will vote in what could be their final act of self-government. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: To hear more from Maine's last rural independents, visit our Web site, npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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