Sunday, August 03, 2008

Small towns run amok

It occurs to me, at a time when Americans are quick to blame the federal government, and those in the Beltway for many of our problems, the systemic root of our failures and shortcomings might be much closer to home.

While railing at some distant bogeyman seems convenient (and often less threatening), it’s much harder to confront those that you encounter in person, particularly if they have the means to get back at you for any criticism, or efforts to bring about change.

In many small Maine towns (and I’m sure similar issues exist in the other 49 states), the officials that run the town were put into their positions for a variety of reasons, the least likely being that they were the best person at the time to fill the position.

While town managers and administrators are hired by an application process that in many cases is competitive, the decision to select the final candidate is often done by those elected to do the bidding of the citizens of the town. Unfortunately, in more cases than I’m comfortable thinking about, these elected officials don’t always act in a manner that benefits the citizens of their community.

My late father-in-law, one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and someone that I hold in the highest esteem, spent about a decade near the end of his life, serving as an administrator in several small Maine towns. This was about 20 years ago, but I remember him telling me how difficult his job was, coming into a town, and having to butt heads with entrenched town officials, like road commissioners, finance directors, and even town clerks, who resented my father-in-laws questioning existing practices. I always found this interesting, as he had over four decades of accounting experience, was a CPA, and had handled the accounts of several large firms, as well as his own successful business. Yet, many of these local yokels, with a high school diploma at best, were sure that they knew more about ordering the town finances than he did.

I haven’t thought about my father-in-law’s challenges with small town power structures for awhile, but since I’ve been following the goings-on across the river, in my town of origin, Lisbon, it occurs to me that what’s happening there is similar to what he and I used to talk about, two decades ago.

From what I can gather, reading accounts in The Lisbon Reporter, and speaking to people I have known for most of my life, there is a tug-of-war going on between those who have benefited by being on the town’s payroll, and a group of concerned citizens that have grown tired with the town’s business as usual, and some of the tactics of town employees that have grown fat at the taxpayer’s expense.

Recently, I was glancing through the latest issue of the Maine Townsman, a monthly magazine produced by the Maine Municipal Association, and sent to more than 4,500 elected and appointed officials and employees of member municipalities and other readers interested in municipal issues.

In it was an excellent article written by Dorothy Burton, a city councilmember in Duncan, Texas, and a writer and professional speaker about issues affecting small communities, like Lisbon.

Her article, "Why We Fail: Avoiding the Evils of Elective Office" ought to be required reading for the town council members in Lisbon, as well as some of the other town officials, such as the town manager, chief of police, the director of economic and community development, and others, who seem to be embracing many, if not all of the seven evils Burton lists in her acrostic, which spells out FAILURE.

  • Forgetting Our Purpose

  • Arrogance

  • Ignoring the Core

  • Lying

  • Underestimating Risk

  • Ruling out the Rules

  • Electronic communications

Burton’s list is an excellent one, and one that all of us ought to look at, and do our own soul-searching, because it also applies to everyday interactions with the people in our own lives.

You can read Burton’s article in its entirety, here:


Anonymous said...

Jim if you were a carpenter I expect there would be no hammer marks in the wood.

Anonymous said...


Once again your writing hits home. Thank you for the information and link to that fabulous article. It's amazing how well it all fits with what is going on here in Lisbon.

Keep up the good work. I have enjoyed reading your recent book 'Moxietown'.

All the best,

Janice 'Chizmar' Comber

Anonymous said...

Jim, excellent article. This goes right to the heart of what is happening in the Town of Lisbon. Keep writing on this subject.