New Englanders have long had two religions.  Our faith religion is slowly sinking beneath the hard boulders of our countryside.  Our secular religion, “local control” of government, may be a bit stronger, but it, too, may be fading.

When we came to New Sharon 39 years ago, we took up the practice of both religions.  I became a Congregationalist and began attending annual town meeting.  I recall taking a walk during lunch at my first town meeting, in 1981, on an usually warm March 7, from the New Sharon School, now our leaky-roofed town office.  I sat on a steep bank above the “iron bridge,” since demolished by order of the state, and reflected on how taking part in the meeting was a basic act of controlling of my own destiny.

We who live in towns, as opposed to cities, yesterday resumed the observance of our secular religion, annual town meeting.  Over the next few weeks, you’ll see lots of stories about this rite of grass-roots democracy.  But the story has gaps, widening gaps.

Begin with attendance.  New Sharon has a history of high turnout at town meeting.  The state economist’s office says we have 1,398 residents.  If three-quarters of those are 18 or older, we have about 1,050 eligible voters.  The largest turnout I’ve seen at annual town meeting was about 215 some years ago.

I have been at town meetings in Farmington, our shiretown, where attendance was lower than New Sharon’s the same year.  Farmington has 5,700 residents of voting age (three-quarters of 7,637).  If 100 attend town meeting, fewer than 1 in 50 has bothered.  We are proud of our turnout in New Sharon, yet barely 20 percent of the voters come out in a big year.  How vibrant is the democracy when four in five don’t participate?

You can argue the turnout issue both ways.  Turnout is low, but those who show up are those who care most about the town.  A turnout of 200 in New Sharon roughly equates with my estimate that 200 people live in New Sharon while 1,200 others sleep here.  Those 1,200 conduct most of their lives elsewhere.  Can you say bedroom town?


The counter argument is that we can’t do much to influence town affairs, so why spend a Saturday (or a Monday evening in some towns) arguing over spending $500 vs. $1,000 for library books.  Or $2,000 vs. $3,000 for fire department hoses.  That makes a certain kind of common sense, because the spending by RSU 9 outstrips spending by the town, and residents have far less say in school budgets.  So, why bother?

A clarification.  A select board — or call it the traditional  “board of selectmen” — is not a legislative body.  The people in annual or special town meeting are the legislative body.  The select board is the administrative or executive arm of town government.  The board may not, for example, move money from one appropriated fund to another.  The select board operates in a legislative manner, though, with a chair running meetings, and voting on each item, such as approving treasurer’s requests for checks to pay bills.

According to the Maine Municipal Association, 448 of the 492 municipalities have some form of town meeting.  Deduct the 23 cities, which can’t hold town meetings, and you have 448 of 469.  Those 448 contain about three-fifths of Maine’s population.

Quite a number of Maine towns have town meetings plus town “administrative assistants” or managers or have voted to have a town council, which takes away another piece of our secular religion.  The town council is partly a legislative body.

We in rural Maine proclaim our fierce loyalty to local control, but we are gradually surrendering it to a steady drumbeat of “efficiency”  or “continuity.”  That translates into, for example, changing terms of elected officeholders to three years from one.  That means voters participate in only one-third as many elections.

Here in New Sharon, voters were asked several times to change the terms on the select board to three years from one year.  The request was voted down several times, with the winning argument being that if we want a person to serve three years on the select board, we will elect her three times.  But it passed one year when it came near the end of the day and most of the people had left the meeting.  The process has been completed during my time on the select board.  Now, New Sharon also elects for three years its town clerk, tax collector, treasurer and road commissioner.


New Sharon has taken another step back from high participation by having elections a day before the meeting.  The state calls this a “bifurcated town meeting.”  We are actually in town meeting from the time the polls open Friday until the moderator gavels us to adjournment Saturday.  Many will vote on Friday and skip the meeting on Saturday.

Back along, we nominated from the floor and voted by secret ballot, lining up to drop our slips of paper into a box for ballot clerks to count while we all waited and schmoozed.  The elections could take all morning.  Then we would break for lunch served by the Methodist Woman’s Society, before voting on the remaining 40 or so warrant articles.  Proceeds from the lunch are given to someone in need.  (Disclosure: One year, my wife, diagnosed with ovarian cancer, received $700 from the Methodist women.  We put it to good use because we were in a gap period with no insurance to cover her $7,500-a-shot chemo.)

New Sharon used a ranked-choice system that dropped off the lowest vote-getter after each round.  That’s more cumbersome than the new ranked-choice system that took effect in 2018 for some Maine elections. But both ranked-choice systems eliminate the possibility of a person being elected with less than a majority of the votes.

With our new pre-vote, we again have the possibility of a person being elected with, say, 34 percent of the vote.  And we have probably reduced the number of people who turn out for town meeting.  Unless some come for the lunch and stay for the meeting.

Yesterday was Bob Neal’s last day as a New Sharon selectman.  He figures he’ll have to find a new way to tick off folks.

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