By Roger Bowen
Six years serving on the Gouldsboro Board of Selectmen hardly qualifies as sufficient experience to opine authoritatively about the role of government in American society, but that experience nonetheless provides me with a perspective that may merit wider consideration.
Government serves a necessary purpose: making decisions about how best to use residents’ taxes in order to support the common good. Maintaining the roads, plowing them in winter, providing police and fire protection services, keeping careful records of excise and property taxes and births and deaths and administering elections are all necessary functions of government that benefit all residents. Roughly one-third of all tax dollars are allocated to such services.
Two thirds of our town expenditures, however, go to the school district. If you are old, have no children in the schools and/or have no emotional attachment to the Peninsula School or Sumner Memorial High School, then you may believe that you are subsidizing children’s education and getting no obvious benefit in return. Unless, that is, you yourself benefited in the past from a free public school education and believe as a result that public education is a right of every youngster and also believe that an educated public is in fact an enduring social benefit.
All these governmental services are or should be a feature of every community, so let’s refer to them as necessary expenditures. Whatever money is left over after spending on these necessities, and it is not very much, can be referred to as “discretionary spending.” Shall the town fund the local library? Should the town build a public park? Should the town donate monies to local nonprofits, such as the local clinic and food pantry, that serve some but not all members of the community? Should the town fund building and then maintaining a baseball field for youngsters? It is these discretionary spending items that invariably attract the most attention from our citizens, often sparking lively debate and intense scrutiny.
Boards of selectmen are purely executive in function while the annual town meeting has legislative authority. True, warrant items come usually with a recommendation from the selectmen and/or the Budget Committee, which is composed of unpaid volunteers from the community, and more often than not the town “legislature” supports the recommendations made by the board.
Symbolically and in practice, citizens who support these official recommendations for passage are essentially saying that they trust their local officials to have competently and with due diligence brought only vitally important issues before them for consideration.
Trust, of course, can be fragile. Public trust in elected officials is probably highest at the local level of government. Selectmen are accessible by phone, email or by coincidence at the local convenient store or gas station. Board members are known personally by large numbers of folks locally.
But as one moves up the food chain to the state and federal levels, public trust in government weakens for opposite reasons. We seldom see and even less seldom speak with our elective representatives. They work at places miles and miles away from the people who elected them; and, unlike local elected officials, state and federal representatives tend to be deeply partisan. Since voters rarely have a personal relationship with their state and federal representatives, votes are often cast based on the candidate’s party affiliation or on the candidate’s personality or style as communicated on TV or in the print news. Trust requires a huge leap of faith when it relies on those two narrow and impersonal attributes of the candidate — party affiliation and personal style.
If trust is the glue that makes government work at the local level, at the state and federal levels civic trust in officials becomes ever more fragile, especially when officials are caught in contradictions, lies and misbehavior. The sociologist Neil Gross (New York Times, May 13, 2018) asks if “trust in American democracy is eroding because the nation has become too big to be effectively governed through traditional means” and suggests that the smaller the government entity, the more likely government will be more responsive to the interests of the common good rather to particular vested interests.
It is a fact that in Gouldsboro the town’s Board of Selectmen acts on behalf of all citizens and makes decisions based not on lobbying by the rich and the powerful. Yet it is also true that the town’s “legislature,” those who actually attend the annual Town Meeting and vote on warrant items, consists largely of the older and more prosperous residents. Why the less prosperous and younger residents do not exercise their legislative authority in deciding how taxes should be spent is the conundrum that makes local democracy less than perfect. That wart on the local body politic cannot be overlooked. Nevertheless, I’ll take local democracy over the chaos of Augusta and Washington any day of the week.
Roger Bowen is completing his second and final term as a Gouldsboro selectman.