In this tumultuous year of divisiveness, accusations and in-fighting, elected leaders in Rumford might finally be ready to work together – maybe

Sen. Ed Muskie’s desk was consigned to a courthouse hallway in Rumford, until the new town manager, Jim Doar, had it brought into his office. “It seemed the right thing to do,” says Doar, who is departing his leadership post in Muskie’s hometown on June 10.

The desk is topped with glass; newspaper clips and photographs celebrating Muskie’s stirring legacy are displayed underneath the pane. Although plain in design, the desk is a symbol of how one man, from Rumford, could navigate swirling political waters and achieve great things.

It worked for Muskie. For Doar, town manager for only a year, not so much.

Rumford, he says, has been stuck in “an environment difficult to get things done.”

“I wasn’t going to be able to do it another two or three years,” he adds, regarding his departure. “I’m optimistic Rumford can turn it around, but I’m not the person to turn it around. I’ve reached the extent of my potential here.”

Doar’s last day coincides with Rumford’s annual vote, which community leaders and residents believe is paramount for the town’s future. The past year has been tumultuous, sparked by deep divisions among town officials and stoked by fiery Internet debate.

The first inkling came last August, when selectman Frank DiConzo challenged a firefighter to “take it outside” during heated discussions regarding the department’s overtime budget.

Then there was the infamous tree-cutting, when DiConzo and fellow selectman, Arthur Boivin, felled two trees in front of town hall, ostensibly for reasons of community service and aesthetics. DiConzo said he put his money where his mouth was. Boivin says the trees, which were scheduled to be cut, obscured the building.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t hear about it,” says Boivin, with a laugh.

Not everybody got the joke, though. Selectman Brad Adley, who runs an automobile sales and service center on Route 2, says the tree-cutting solidified the differences between selectmen.

“There are two different sets of opinions on this board,” Adley says.

Adley, along with board chairman Greg Buccina, later voted to remove DiConzo and Boivin, a maneuver of questionable legality but unvarnished intent. The action failed to hold, and DiConzo and Boivin retained their seats.

For Doar, a self-described budgeting wonk, all the public turmoil was a double-edged sword, with one side gilded, the other blunt. The town was engaged with its government, but unfortunately, it was for all the wrong reasons.

“Taking care of business is not glamorous,” he says. “Everybody wants to be drawn to the story, the soap opera stuff. But nobody looks at the budget, the nuts and bolts stuff.”

One of Doar’s attempts to bring the public into the day-to-day business of government was the Open Doar, his blog published on the town’s Web site. It started the same time he did, and selectmen voted Thursday to shut it down because of regular vulgar and obscene postings by anonymous visitors to the site. What began as discussion turned into a fusillade of political and personal attacks, propagated by a small number of townspeople.

The barrage spread to other Web sites, including the Sun Journal’s and other community sites, like the Rumford Reporter. Doar, in his slice of cyberspace, eventually found himself more on the defensive than the progressive.

His protestations only drew more vitriol.

“Awwww. Pitty (sic) party for Jimmy boy,” an anonymous poster on the Open Doar said April 1. “Your days in Rumford have come and gone. Jim, now it’s time to pack your little family and your bag’s (sic) and get the hell out.”

These Internet attacks, along with the selectmen’s misbehavior, had “a lot” to do with his decision not to stay in the post, says Doar. “It is difficult to do a pretty good job (as a manager) without consistency,” he adds.

Politically active people in town, says Doar, were “less than willing” to work together toward common goals.

It’s a situation he wishes could have been avoided. “There is a lot of low-hanging fruit here, from an administrative perspective,” he says. “I was excited by a lot of stuff here. This is frustrating, no question.”

Growth spurts

Social scientists who study government and communities have a word for towns like Rumford, whose citizens and officials are thirsting for change and action, but are arguably destroying the town’s progress in the process: growth.

“Often, communities in the growth stage can fragment,” says Rich Harwood, president of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and author of Hope Unraveled, which studied the phenomenon of flight from civic engagement in American cities.

Harwood has defined five states of community: growth is the fourth of five, with the fifth as the mountaintop. The system runs two ways, however; just as communities can grow into sustainability, they can also slip downward into worsening situations, defined as “waiting place” and “impasse” by Harwood.

Growth communities are impetuous, yet moving in the right direction. They are connected, engaged, yet are missing a key component to unlock sustainability and renewal. Although this atmosphere has productive energy, this power, like a bolt of lightening, can wreak havoc if misdirected.

“I’m empathetic to communities in this stage,” says Harwood. “The natural reflex is to be destructive, not produce change.”

Or, he counters, the other reflex is creating processes for action, instead of taking action. The signature of this, says Harwood, is creation of another committee, or task force, or study group, which may or may not do anything.

A good example is economic development, a crystallizing topic in Rumford, and the focus of a brand new town committee and, potentially, $99,000 in town funding if approved by voters. The irony is that growing business is usually unconnected to anything resembling committee work.

Hence the appearance, but not actual action. “It’s better to create a soft effort, instead of something that is constrained by a process,” Harwood recommends.

Factional warfare

The notion of economic development is challenging for Rumford because, for decades, the town’s fortunes started and stopped with the smokestacks looming over town. Today, the paper mill’s heyday might be past, but it remains the community’s heart and soul.

Buccina, who works at NewPage, says the mill helped isolate Rumford, and made its government rest on its laurels. “Nothing was done for 10 years,” he says.

Now there is uncertainty about the mill, whose parent has announced its intention to go public, about gas and food prices and housing. Complacency, Buccina says, lets big problems, like neglecting building maintenance, grow.

But the most serious problem in Rumford, he thinks, is the town’s government. “The biggest thing holding this town back are the actions within the board of selectmen,” says Buccina. “We’re giving people reasons to raise questions.”

Which is why Buccina and Adley made the controversial votes to remove DiConzo and Boivin in February, which neither selectman regrets.

“It’s OK when you disagree, but the word ‘respectful’ has been lost,” says Buccina.

DiConzo, for his part, says there are significant differences between his ideas and those of Adley and Buccina. “There are warring factions between the board,” he says. “There’s a lot of underlying stuff the people don’t realize.”

“(Buccina and Adley) try to run (the board) as a dictatorship,” he adds, yet when the board’s problems echo, such as through the tree-cutting or recent uproar over disbanding and restoring the town’s charter commission, only a single message is heard: “It shows through to the public that Frank is a bad boy,” DiConzo says.

Boivin is a little more sanguine about the board’s troubles. “You have your ups and downs,” he says.

Look! Unity!

Government observers look at divisiveness among elected boards as much more problematic. “When elected officials hate each other, forget innovation,” says David Osborne, author of “Reinventing Government” and senior partner with The Public Strategies Group.

Government needs to be nimble, says Osborne, whether on the local level – like Rumford – or within the wizened hallways of Capitol Hill. This is hard enough when there is unity among officials, but downright impossible when they become consumed with themselves.

As the politics worsen, he says, the more bureaucratic and immobile the government becomes. Instead of working on progress, one faction “puts in rules to keep the other (faction) from doing what they want to do.”

A change of blood, instead of continued bloodshed, is one course through the choppy political waters of Rumford. Buccina and selectman Mark Belanger are both running for re-election; voters’ decision regarding their fate could be a bellwether for the town’s future, and its politics. Previous races have been predictably nasty.

If the voters appear at all. A corollary to the town’s political divisiveness is a crucial question: will all the headlines and shenanigans frustrate the public, or energize more people than ever to vote in their local election?

Officials are leaning and hoping for the latter. Town clerk Jane Giasson says Rumford has strong local turnouts, an observation backed by numbers. The town’s highest recent turnout was 2007, when 1,557 visited the polls.

Rumford has approximately 4,800 registered voters. And with the selectmen’s race, a slew of charter changes and an ambulance question all before them on June 10, there are more than enough reasons for a record turnout to emerge.

Maybe the most critical reason is, perhaps, the most minor item on the ballot.

Rumford is taking the unique approach of voting on charter changes individually, not a group. One proposed change is small: removing the provision that states the town manager must be available for full-time service.

This change would clear Rumford to hire John Madigan, manager of neighboring Mexico, to share managerial duties for both towns for a year, as a trial. If successful, Rumford and Mexico would become the largest communities in Maine to share a top administrator. (Three towns in Aroostook County already do.)

Some officials hope this partnership will spur others, such as sharing fire or police administration. Such progress, they say, will make Rumford-Mexico an emblem of good government in Maine, in this era of shared services.

There’s something even more shocking about this situation, though:

To a man, every elected official in Rumford agrees this should be done.

Happy together?

Usually, selectmen’s meetings take priority when it comes to reserved meeting rooms. But on May 7, the joint meeting of the Rumford and Mexico boards was bounced from its meeting room by a local nonprofit that needed the space, and crammed instead into the smallish jury room inside Rumford’s courthouse.

Most, but not all, of the towns’ selectmen were present, shoulder-to-shoulder, along with Madigan.

The topic was joint management. Support was unanimous, albeit for different reasons. DiConzo, for example, has supported shared services for years, while Buccina sees Madigan as the best possible candidate to accept Rumford, given recent events. “At this point in history,” Buccina told the meeting, “things have been a little rocky.”

Community support for joint management seems widespread too.

Boivin had barely taken three steps down Congress Street, a couple of days before the meeting, before he was stopped by a resident who told him, “We need shared services.”

“That’s what I like about this small town,” Boivin said at the time.

Lack of unity among elected officials has been a death knell for other communities pursuing consolidation. In Lewiston-Auburn, the ill-fated L/A Together of the 1990s faltered because the city councils stayed apart.

Today, the L-A committee on joint services has similar roadblocks. It also experienced something familiar to Rumford: the departure of Steve Eldridge, who was the cities’ joint services coordinator.

Eldridge was town manager before Doar, and his name is now either spoken or spat by townspeople, depending on their opinion of his tenure. Some credit him for fostering change, others think he worked against town wishes.

The coincidence is the only connection between Eldridge and Rumford now, despite rumored connections between the two. Doar, who has been accused of collaborating with Eldridge, has been baffled by the charge.

Most of these accusations were Internet-based. Doar says they speak for themselves. Buccina says the chatter paints a skewed portrait. “I believe the people in this town, who are working and raising a family, know the difference between right and wrong,” he says.

Whether this means voters will support joint management, or a host of other charter changes, will be decided next month. What is apparent is Rumford selectmen are, for now, foregoing past grievances and looking forward.

Some are almost giddy about it.

“I have butterflies in my stomach because of the opportunity for this to go to fruition,” DiConzo said during the meeting. “If we can pull this off, with what has occurred, towns in similar situation, smart towns, will say, ‘How did you guys do it?’ We would be an example for the state, if we make this work.”

Buccina echoed this sentiment. “This is pretty historic, if you think about it.”

And even Boivin, a strict constructionist who calls Rumford’s charter its constitution, was supportive of charter changes to make Madigan co-manager. “It there is a problem,” Boivin said, “we can work our way through it.”

In response, Mexico chairwoman Barbara Laramee said what has probably been on resident and taxpayer minds in Rumford for about the past year.

“If this group does not work together,” Laramee said, “This is not going to work.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.