John Sylvester
Looking Back, Looking Ahead

(from Maine Townsman, October 2010)
by John Sylvester, MMA President, Selectman, Town of Alfred

So, what did you learn during your year as president? In my case, it’s not so much what I learned as it is what was strongly reinforced.

Here’s the easy stuff. Town officials across Maine know what needs to be done, they do it and they solve new issues as they arise.

Towns across Maine, generally, are great examples of well run, efficient organizations. Maine Municipal Association is nationally recognized for excellence and innovation. Staff members at MMA are not only experts in their chosen fields but also are people-oriented problem solvers who can be trusted and called upon to help.

Here’s the hard stuff. Opinion leaders across Maine representing many disciplines continually call for a reduction in the number of Maine towns. These spokespersons usually state that larger is better, more efficient and less wasteful. While examples of municipal collaboration are cited and often repeated, not enough is reported or said about the many cooperative efforts that occur every day among Maine towns.

It is interesting to learn that when towns get challenged directly and examples of collaboration are cited in response, the challenger often expresses surprise that such efforts not only exist but they have for years.

Recently, a state Senator challenged a group of towns to share a service. He expressed surprise to learn that it was already occurring. One local official was surprised to learn that this service already was being provided across town lines in many parts of the state. This information had been shared with the Senator, who either didn’t remember or was simply repeating the same tired line that towns don’t work with each other.

What’s the point? It is mandatory, not just important, that municipal officials establish and maintain trusting, respectful, ongoing relationships with legislators. Town officials must do this by every means available, creating new opportunities to communicate with legislators, while using existing ways to talk to one another. In the absence of such a dialogue, legislators and other state government leaders will talk among themselves, and will do so using information that is often inaccurate. If we don’t bother to provide the correct information, we pay the steep costs associated with legislation sponsored by anecdote and myth rather than data and facts.

Examples occur every day highlighting the gulf between state and local government. We are in the midst of an extremely important state election. While there are five candidates for Governor, few of their remarks have focused on any meaningful role for local government. That is nothing new, unfortunately.

It’s also unacceptable. With more than 9,000 municipal officials in Maine, it is simply crucial that the candidates not ignore this resource and our collective wisdom, whether they are running for the Blaine House or the House of Representatives.

In my 17th year as an Alfred Selectman, I’m also aware that some towns across the state are not well-managed from time to time. We should be up front about this too, and need to help our colleagues when they experience problems. As our state and municipalities struggle to find a niche globally, our best effort must be given to meet today’s challenges.

During my past nine-plus months as MMA President, I’ve become a much stronger advocate for local government. The challenges facing us are now well known. We also know how to respond to them.

I look forward to working with each of you during my remaining time as a member of MMA’s Executive Committee. Thank you for the challenges and opportunities.

The future is, as always, full of hope and great moments. Although there is much work to be done, we should take pride in knowing that our model of local government, so successful for centuries, continues to work for Maine’s 1.3 million citizens.