Still a ‘Fighter’ After All These Years

(from Maine Townsman, October 2009)
By Liz Chapman Mockler

Kathy LittlefieldFew elected officials in Maine have fought harder or longer to protect municipal local control and independence than Kathy Littlefield, the tenacious, outspoken lead selectman for the town of Waldo for nearly 40 years.

And anyone who thinks that might change soon should be warned: Think again.

“To be honest, it was a way to earn a little extra money to pay the taxes on the farm,” Littlefield said in explaining why she made her first run for selectman in 1972. Thirty-seven years later, the Camden native smiles and adds, “But then, I kind of got hooked on working with people and trying to make a difference.”

Littlefield could tell a thousand stories about running a small municipality in Maine. About the headaches and heartaches, the challenges and victories, the potholes and pitfalls. The good times and bad.

She still writes out the annual property tax bills by hand and only this year stopped hand-delivering the town report to all 150 households -- and only because the Post Office finally got her to stop using mailboxes as a depository for the annual report.

“I make mistakes,” she said in her direct, no-nonsense way of speaking. “I just try not to make them twice.”

Free to fight

Littlefield happened to seek office shortly before the state imposed a “uniform property tax” (UPT) for education and just as the state was trying to set up mandatory assessing districts and impose new municipal assessing standards. Littlefield saw the assessing laws as an insult to local government and an implication that selectmen and councilors could not run their municipal government without oversight or the help of the state.

Incensed by the paternalistic nature of the new education and assessing laws, Littlefield became a “Freedom Fighter” not long after her first swearing-in ceremony. The Freedom Fighters were a vocal band of local government officials – who were mostly from the Waldo County area, who gained statewide prominence for their strong opposition to both the UPT and the mandatory assessing districts, and who were strong advocates for local control. After many meetings across the state and in Augusta, and an exhaustive public education effort, Littlefield and her Freedom Fighter friends prevailed and the UPT was repealed. The Freedom Fighters were also successful in making the assessment districting law voluntary (and it should be noted that no lasting, voluntary districts were ever formed).

She still savors these victories as some of the most important efforts she has ever been involved with as a municipal official.

“The state wanted to create assessment districts,” she said, where municipalities would be forced to consolidate for property assessment purposes and hire professional full-time assessors (as opposed to part-time selectmen), instead of letting each town make its own choice about what would work best in their community.

It was a classic “one size fits all” philosophy that Littlefield still disdains.

“If that had happened,” she asserts, “then we would have no small towns in Maine today.”

Then came the Freedom Fighters II effort in the late 1980s when some state lawmakers started talking about changing the Maine Constitution to remove the “just value” approach to establishing property values. In the 1980s, property values, particularly along the Maine coast, were skyrocketing as out-of-state real estate buyers were paying inflated prices for Maine waterfront property, according to Littlefield.

That phenomenon, which still persists today, was causing values to rise rapidly even for people who were staying put. People – who called Maine home – were finding out that their property values had sharply increased without them doing anything and were having difficulty paying their taxes.

The Freedom Fighters of Waldo County decided that they should be weighing in on this important issue. Just like they did in the 1970s fighting mandatory assessing districts, the Freedom Fighters wanted to maintain and strengthen local government’s role and voice regarding this important assessing issue.

“During the Freedom Fighter II effort, we met twice a week,” Littlefield said of the group of resisters who were again successful in getting the state to butt out of local government. “We were sort of a rebellious group at the time,” she recalled. “That was fun.”

Smoke, no mirrors

What Littlefield does not consider fun is working hard all year and then not getting healthy and heartfelt participation from town residents. During many town meetings, Littlefield has sought feedback and questions from the people who pay the bills, but often without success.

Although she interprets the silence as the public’s general satisfaction in the way the town’s three selectmen are handling matters, given her assertive personality and penchant for directness, she openly urges Waldo residents to hold her and the board just as accountable as they do state officials.

“At every town meeting I get after them (and say) ‘there are questions you should be asking,’” she said.

“I want them to question me,” she continued. “I want them to ask, ‘What are you planning to do?’ That makes everyone think more. To me, that’s important. And I would much rather have questions before, instead of after, a problem takes root and festers.”

She put her foot down, literally, when taxpayers wanted to merge the entire municipal budget into one question so they could vote on the individual warrant articles en masse.

“I refused,” she said without a hint of regret. “They need to go through every item so they can understand.”

The need to cajole taxpayers into being more engaged in local government was not a problem when Littlefield was first elected, she said. At that time, selectmen meetings were held in the first selectman’s kitchen because the town had not built a municipal office. Littlefield remembered how some residents began to complain and intimate the board was keeping secrets or cooking up trouble around the woodstove.

The board had one faithful gadfly who followed them from the kitchen to the smelly, cramped fire station, where the board began meeting despite the station’s condition, size and the “stinky trucks” that were parked in the same space.

Littlefield said the man got angry the first time the board called for an executive session and asked him for privacy.

“I’ll leave,” the man huffed, Littlefield recalled with a laugh, and then he climbed into the cab of a firetruck, and revved the engine good and hard, leaving the selectmen shrouded in a fog of blue fumes (in case you’re wondering, he didn’t drive the truck out of the station).

The incident was the impetus for building the town’s first business office, Littlefield said.

“The people of Waldo are good,” she said. “They don’t give me a hard time about much.”

Local control rules

The same cannot be said about Littlefield’s relationship with state legislators and bureaucrats. She admits having no patience for red tape, uninformed laws and the party politics that seem to her to take precedence over resolving problems by looking at the facts and protecting local control.

Littlefield said many of the state’s laws and policies “make people weak, not independent.”

“Pretty soon, they should get a basket and get to the delivery room and catch ‘em when they come out,” she said, only half-joking.

She thinks municipal officials, whether elected or appointed, must be diligent in keeping track of what’s happening in Augusta. She even refuses to ignore the little decisions that bother her and believes strongly that problems need to be fixed while there’s still time.

Not long ago, Littlefield appealed the state’s interpretation of an assessment rule that arguably would not have a great impact on one municipality, but in the aggregate could cost local government a great deal, indeed.

“If you don’t stop the small stuff, you can’t stop it when it gets big,” she said. “If you’re not vigilant, (a bad idea) will disappear and then pop up again when you’re not expecting it.”

Littlefield is well-known in some state circles. OK, sometimes even notorious. For example, after being outraged -- “livid” would be a better word -- over a new law requiring the state to conduct annual audits of the town’s books, she flatly refused to cooperate with state officials. She did not prevent the tax collector from cooperating, since the state was most interested in excise tax revenue collections, but she did not welcome them or help them.

“They think we can’t do it (right),” she lamented. “I tried to shut my mouth, but in the end, I could not. State law already required that towns have an annual independent audit. The law also already included a provision that if taxpayers were suspicious or concerned, they could call the state department of audit.

“From the start,” she continued, “I had the attitude that ‘you should clean your own house before you come to clean my house.’ We didn’t need the state -- and we didn’t need the state spending its precious resources duplicating what was already being done.

“What better way than town meeting to control expenses and hold local officials accountable?” she asked.

Littlefield said she learned patience from being a municipal advocate and becoming more well-versed in state politics.

The Legislature ultimately created a study committee, and named her to it, to find out whether the audits were necessary.

After their investigation, they came to the same conclusion Littlefield had reached without a study committee. “The (audit) program disappeared. I love it,” she said, unable to suppress a wide smile and a deep laugh.

Littlefield fights more than the state and its rules and policies. Every year, she shows up at the school budget hearing to protest spending -- not that a lot of others do. She fought the need for a new $40 million high school for the 11-town school district in which Waldo belongs; a fight she lost.

She fights excessive county spending and wants to be part of ongoing discussions regarding jail consolidation. She fights budget caps. She fights misinformation. Most especially, she fights anything that dilutes the town meeting or threatens local control.

Busy is as busy does

To say that Littlefield has been busy is a quintessential understatement. Never mind raising a family and helping her husband raise animals and run a farm, she accepted responsibility for the day-to-day town operations nearly from Day One.

In 2003, she founded the Waldo County Selectmen’s Association. She said that even today, she calls meetings only when there is real trouble -- whether it’s another state effort to infringe on local governance rights or a single town experiencing a dire problem and needing help.

Everyone can learn something from other people, she said.

“I don’t call a meeting unless it’s essential,” she said. “(Elected officials) know that when I call, they need to come.”

She added, “You cannot govern in a vacuum. You need to know what is going on at the state government level, as well as what’s happening to your neighbors.”

Littlefield served on the state Board of Environmental Protection for eight years, nominated twice by former Gov. Angus King; worked 12 years as a member of the county budget committee; served two years as a member of the MMA Legislative Policy Committee; and accepted a stint on the county jail committee in addition to other temporary study panels.

She has traveled countless times to the State House in Augusta to support or help defeat bills aimed at local government. She and her counterparts have not always been victors, but she believes they defeated the worst of state proposals over the past four decades.

Despite her reputation for challenging state policies, Littlefield said she has often been broached to run for the Legislature. Although she is openly a Democrat, she said partisan politics gets left at home when selectmen hold their meetings. She winced while thinking of what municipal government might be like if party politics influenced town decisions and functions.

As for running for a legislative seat, Littlefield isn’t big on the idea. After all, she’s a fighter for everyone, not just people enrolled as Democrats.

“I’ve been approached to run, but they would not like me because I’m not going to be told how to think,” she said. “I wouldn’t last. They’d eat me alive up there.”

Liz Chapman Mockler is a freelance writer and media advisor from Augusta,