From The Editor

(from Maine Townsman, April 2010)
By Eric Conrad, Director, Communication & Educational Services

Eric CoOnradWhen you start a new job, friends and family tend to ask the usual questions. “How’s the new job?” “What exactly do you do?” “Do you think you’ll like it?” Those kinds of things.

As we were driving to school a short time ago, my 9-year-old daughter, Nora, had a different inquiry: “Dad, what is a Maine Municipal?”

I smiled and corrected her slightly. “I work for the Maine Municipal Association,” I said. “That’s a group made up of towns and cities in Maine and the people who were elected to lead and hired to run them. The association I work for is there to help them.”

Nora nodded and looked out the car window, her thoughts already shifting to dragonflies, Leprechauns or who she might play with at recess that day.

I have given the topic more thought, however, since Nora and I had that exchange and since I’ve had more than a month on the job. Here are some of the things I would say now:

The MMA strives to help municipalities of all sizes and makeup provide their citizens with many of the most important governmental services that exist: public policing, firefighting, clearing and maintaining roads, recycling, setting spending priorities and levying taxes.

The MMA provides integral tools and programs to municipal leaders and employees: advocacy and lobbying services; legal advice; training; self-funded health and other types of insurance; and, human-resource expertise, to name a few.

Another crucial thing the MMA does is provide information and communication vehicles to our members. It is an ironic fact that during an age in which we are swimming in print publications, hundreds of TV and radio channels and millions of blogs and Web sites, it is harder than ever to discern what information is useful versus what is a colossal waste of time.

This is where the Maine Townsman and our Web site (www.memun.org) come in. This is why I am both humbled and honored that the MMA has hired me to play an important role.

For starters, I believe that communication is a two-way street. So, I’d like to hear from you. What do you like about the Townsman? What do you think should be changed? What subjects should we cover more often or in more depth? Do you visit our Web site? If so, how often and what are your thoughts about it? The MMA also provides electronic updates, weekly legislative bulletins during sessions and many other means of communication. Is it enough, too much – or just the right approach?

I will tell you that in just my short period of time in the job, I have been impressed by what I’ve seen both the MMA and its member municipalities do. I’ve lived and worked in Maine for 15 years and did not fully realize all that was going on.

For example, the MMA recently held its 2010 Tech Conference, an event that I went to but the Communication & Educational Services staff and others at MMA had organized before my first day.

Two hundred people attended, coming from big cities like Bangor and Lewiston and small towns like Andover and Mechanic Falls. The evaluation forms – we read every one of them – were overwhelmingly positive despite a brief fire emergency triggered in another part of the Augusta Civic Center.

Even at this conference, the importance of information was underscored. James Page, chief executive officer at the James W. Sewall Co. in Old Town, set a somber tone during his keynote address. The short-term outlook for government and business, he said, is that financial resources will remain tight, while expectations for services will continue to rise.

“How we turn data into information is the key to how we meet expectations with fewer resources,” Page said, adding that technology and smart communication decisions together can make this possible.

From what I’ve seen, innovation and collaboration are alive and well at the municipal level. I was an editor and journalist in Portland, Augusta and Waterville for close to 15 years before a job change last year. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I did not know the degree to which municipal leaders and their staffs collaborate across municipal boundaries when it makes sense to do so, and how many times municipalities contract with local businesses to provide quality services at affordable rates.

Mainers instinctively know that local government is the most accessible, nimble and efficient layer of government, which may explain why recent ballot initiatives to end the (locally spent) vehicle excise tax or impose mandated tax caps failed by wide margins.

We at MMA want to help get the word out. Starting in the Townsman’s May edition, we will highlight collaborative projects and programs so members can learn from what’s happening around the state and so the public and media realize to what extent this is being done. If you have examples that you want to share, please send them my way.

In the meantime, please know that I feel privileged to be here, serving those of you who serve all of us.