After 24 years of service, Gary Fortier’s tour of duty on the Ellsworth City Council is coming to an end. Read the list of positions Gary has held in Ellsworth and you will have to lie quietly with a cold cloth on your forehead to recover.
Men and women like Gary are what makes the world go ’round in Maine towns. Though Gary is surely high up in the pantheon of local heroes, service-wise, he is not the only Mainer who has given decades of service to their communities.
Kip Leach served 47 years as a Brooksville selectman. Neville Hardy matched that record in Deer Isle. Dexter Lee of Swan’s Island served 43 years. Sonny Sprague served two stints as a selectman on Swan’s for a total of 37 years. So far. And Don Jordan of Aurora? He tops them all at 50 years as a selectman.
There are others whose names are synonymous with their communities. Dana Rice in Gouldsboro. Jim Schatz in Blue Hill. Bruce Carter in Franklin. What motivates these people to give their entire adult lives to public service? Most of them don’t have much of an explanation. It just kind of happened. In a newspaper interview, Don Jordan said his name was put up when “nobody else wanted the job.” He was 22. Now, at 72, he’s still there.
It is a unique type of public service, and a far cry from what we read about in the newspapers when it comes to elected office. Town officials in Maine are not sitting in an office at some remove from the people they serve. They are embedded in their communities, visible and accessible every single day, as much a part of daily life as anyone else in town.
These are not people voters learn about through TV ad campaigns. They are part and parcel of local life. You know not only them, but their parents and grandparents as well. Their pasts are part of the fabric of the town.
Take Bob Fernald, Franklin’s town clerk for almost 25 years. His father was clerk for 37 years, then his mother took on the job for 13 years, then it was Bob’s turn until he passed away in 2018. He did most of his clerking from his house.
As with Donnie Jordan, there is usually an element of “nobody else wanted to do it” with these roles. These are not people who pushed to the front of the line to take on a prominent role in their communities. They were people who, when their town called on them, answered. And they stuck with it year after year after year.
They were usually from multigenerational local families, often with a history of town service. They knew their communities inside and out and had a knack for communicating in the local vernacular. They knew who the opinion leaders were and who the outliers were, who would turn out to help when help was needed and whose bark was worse than whose bite.
They were patient people who understood what it meant to be in it for the long haul. They knew what their communities would accept and what would never fly. They knew who they could go to for sound advice, whose word was good, and who could be counted on to pitch in when elbow grease was required.
You may have noticed that all those named so far are men. That’s the title, right? “Selectmen.” And until relatively recently, they were indeed all men. In the 21st century there is an awareness that the term “selectmen” may have outlived its appropriateness. The Maine Municipal Association, after decades of debate, recently changed the name of its monthly magazine from The Townsman to Maine Town and City.
Nevertheless, it is mostly people from away who worry about the terminology. Women raised in rural Maine generally do not object to the term “selectmen” any more than women who catch lobster want to be called anything but “lobstermen.”
Maine’s selectmen are generally of the Ghandi school of leadership. Said that revolutionary of his role: “There go my people. I am their leader. I must follow them.” They excel at nudging their flock along, but they are never out in front of them.
With the exception of Maine’s larger cities, local elected officials are nonpartisan, paid very little and do not campaign much for office. They are recruited by their communities and sometimes serve for life. They are accountable at a very personal level, put in far more hours than most of us realize, are heaped with scorn for unpopular decisions and rarely thanked for their service. They are doing an essential job that most of us do not want. We would do well to show some appreciation.