Monday, February 9, 2015

Why Maine and New England are passionate about (tiny) strong town governments

In this week's Maine Sunday Telegram I explain why New Englanders in general and Mainers in specific are such passionate defenders of their strong town government system, where hundreds of hamlets with just a few hundred or few thousand people function as small republics unto themselves, with broad powers of self-government. Like so many things hereabouts, it all goes back to the early Puritans.

Here's a taste:

"Believing themselves on a religious errand to build a more godly society in the American wilderness, the Puritans expected townspeople to work together toward the common good, governing themselves without the interference of bishops, kings or even county officials. Citizens came together in town meetings to act as miniature parliaments, giving direction to elected selectmen.
New Englanders didn’t fear their government because, in a very real sense, they were the government. 

Efforts to centralize power by royal officials – in the late 1680s and again in the mid-1770s – ran into intractable opposition including, in the latter instance, armed resistance by municipally organized and controlled militia units."
These issues are in the news again because of renewed efforts by Gov. Paul LePage to encourage municipalities to share and consolidate services and powers on the theory that this will save money -- an effort pursued by immediate past Democratic and Independent governors as well. As the essay notes, consolidation can indeed save money and allow for more intelligent planning, but it can also wind up being a costly boondoggle. The devil is in the details and in who gets to decide who cooperates with whom and over what.

For more on these issues in Maine, consider delving into my cultural history of our state, The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier; on the Puritans, the New England way, and its effect on regional politics and social norms, try American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

That is all.

[Update 2/21/15: My colleagues at the Press Herald opinion department took the essay to heart in this editorial.]

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