SO YOU’RE THINKING OF RUNNING FOR LOCAL OFFICE….GREAT!
A guide for elected official wannabes
(from Maine Townsman, March 1999)
by Jo Josephson, MMA Staff Writer

It's probably the most challenging job you’ll ever have (and the lowest paying). It will probably be among the most interesting and rewarding too. The job is that of a municipal officer – a selectman or a councilor. Before you can experience it, however, you will first have to decide to run for office and then you will need to get enough votes to be elected.

Not only will the job ask you to be a model of civility and cooperation, an educator and interpreter of public opinion, and a leader bringing people together and building trust, it will also provide you with the opportunity to shape policy governing the future of your town or city. In the course of doing so, you will learn all facets of local government including municipal law and finance.

If you are elected, life as you know it will change:

• You’ll never eat at the local diner or stop by the hardware store without someone complaining about roads, taxes, etc. You might be cornered anywhere, at any time, on anything. Unlike elected officials at the state and federal level, you are in direct contact on a daily basis with the people who elected you.

• You’ll spend a lot of time attending meetings, not only municipal meetings but regional and statewide ones as well. You’ll also spend a lot of time preparing for them, reading the material that needs to be read in order to make an informed decision in the course of the meeting.

If you are elected, you will draw upon skills you already have, skills you never knew you had, or skills you wished you had. The job might require you to:

• Facilitate meetings, speak to the press, respond to angry and sometimes hostile citizens, testify before legislative committees, negotiate with contractors, bankers and engineers.

• Make decisions on everything from who to hire as the next town manager, to which bid to accept for paving the roads, to how to pay for solid waste disposal, to joining with neighboring towns in a regional approach to providing dispatch services.

FORMS OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT

A lot of what you will do depends on the form of government in your municipality and whether or not you have a manager.

Basically, local government takes two forms in Maine:

• The Town Meeting form of government allows the residents themselves – those that attend the town meeting, that is – to vote on local ordinances and municipal budget items. Residents elect a part-time board of selectmen to carry out the decisions made by the town meeting. Of the 493 municipalities in Maine, 429 are governed entirely by this form of government.

• The Representative form of government has an elected body – a council – that passes local laws and approves the municipal budget. Sixty-one municipalities are governed entirely or in-part by councils. In approximately 20 of these municipalities, a town meeting approves the budget.

While most councils are served by a manager, only one-third of the town meeting communities are. It is important to understand the different roles played by elected officials and appointed managers.

• The council or board of selectmen make policy; it is the job of the manager to carry out that policy.

• The council or board of selectmen hire and give direction to the manager.

• In general, the manager hires and supervises the other appointed municipal employees.

LEGAL BACKGROUND

Your term as an elected official will be more productive if you understand some basic law relating to municipal government.

Home Rule and Mandates

Municipalities are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution; they are the creations of state government.

While Maine’s municipalities, as a result of an amendment to the Maine Constitution in 1970, enjoy a greater degree of autonomy (a.k.a. home rule) than municipalities in many other states, actions taken at the state and federal level sometimes preempt those taken at the local level. For example, except for very limited, prescribed local licensing authority, federal and state governments have preempted the regulation of firearms and alcoholic beverages.

Local governments are often subjected to mandates from the state and federal government. For example, local governments in recent years have had to close down their landfills, build salt-sand sheds, and write comprehensive land use plans.

All this means is that as an elected official you will want to be aware of the limitations of home rule and get involved in the legislative process, at least at the state level.

Right-to-Know Law

Maine’s Right-to Know Law was enacted in 1976, following the Watergate scandal, to assure general public access to both the public proceedings and public records of government. The law strikes a three-way balance between the public’s right to observe and review the conduct of public business, the municipality’s responsibility to protect the confidentiality of certain matters and to retain competitiveness, and the individual’s right of privacy. Among other things, the law requires that the public be given ample notice of public meetings, that they be allowed to attend and record the meetings, provided they do not disrupt them, and that closed-door meetings (a.k.a., executive sessions) be limited to specific subjects.

Conflict of Interest

Maine’s Conflict of Interest Law describes four kinds of situations where official participation in a governmental action is prohibited:

• A conflict of interest exists where an official has a personal financial interest in a matter of official business. (Your spouse is bidding on a road project.)

• Incompatibility of office is present where two public offices, by virtue of their conflicting duties, cannot be held by the same person. (You cannot simultaneously serve as the clerk and a selectman.)

• Prohibited appointments include those paid positions off-limits to those who created them or who increased their compensation. (You raised the police chief’s salary and then applied for the job.)

• Bias occurs when you cannot make a fair or impartial decision because of prejudice or a family relationship. (Your son-in-law has applied for the town manager’s job.)

Maine Tort Claims Act

The Maine Tort Claims Act provides a basic, but not exclusive, framework for determining what actions a municipality and its employees may be held liable for under state law.

The general rule regarding municipal liability is that immunity is the rule; liability is the exception. For example, a municipality can be found liable when a town-owned snow plow operated by a municipal employee strikes a parked motor vehicle. A town, however, cannot be sued for negligent snow plowing or sanding. Under the Act, municipalities cannot be sued for more than $300,000. Federal actions, however, are not restricted by this limit.

When it comes to municipal officials, the general rule is just the reverse: immunity for the individual is the exception and liability is the rule. For most decision-making, however, as long as it is within the scope of a municipal officer’s authority, you are protected by the Tort Claims Act. Lawsuits under federal law are not restricted by this state law.

CONNECTING CITIZENS WITH GOVERNMENT

Your term as an elected official will be more productive if you understand that a major part of your job is to inform and engage the citizenry.

Public Meetings and Hearings

While both public meetings and public hearings are considered public proceedings, the public’s role in them is quite different.

The public has a right to speak at a public hearing because that is the purpose of the hearing. And while citizens may attend meetings of the council or board of selectmen, so-called public meetings, they have no automatic right to speak or in any other way participate in such meetings.

This is not to say that the public is to be excluded from a regular meeting of a council or the board of selectmen. Most municipalities allow for public input during such a meeting, usually scheduling it at the beginning; some even allow for comments at specific points during the meeting.

Agendas and Minutes

Municipal officers are not required to post an agenda or keep minutes of their meetings but they are required to give reasonable notice of the date, time and location of the meeting.

As to just what constitutes a public meeting, the law is quite clear: it is "the meeting of a body consisting of three or more persons" even if only two of the members plan to attend.

Regarding agendas and minutes, law or no law it’s a good idea to have them. Agendas keep everyone, including the public and the press, informed of what is to be taken up, giving structure to the meeting. Minutes bypass faulty memory and provide a written record of what was decided, when, and by whom.

The Media

Not many residents will attend your meetings, but they will read the media’s account of them. Therefore, as an elected official, you should develop a working relationship with the local press. There is nothing more dangerous than an uninformed press. Accept the fact that everything you say will be used by the press. That doesn’t mean you should shy away from the press, or talk "off the record", or refuse to comment; it means you should be prepared to speak on the record and when you don’t know the answer to a question, say so.

Newsletters

A growing number of municipalities in Maine are publishing their own newsletters as a way of better informing their residents about actions recently taken or about to be taken. Not only do these publications create an informed citizenry, they are said to create a sense of community as well.

Town Reports

Don’t overlook the value of your town report. For many municipalities it’s the only communications that residents receive. Think of ways to use it more effectively as a communication tool. Make it more reader friendly. Include more charts, graphs and photos.

Public Access TV

As they acquire the equipment and training from their local cable companies, a growing number of municipalities are airing their meetings live on cable television.

SOME ADVICE FROM THE VETERANS

Several years ago, some veteran municipal officials were contacted and asked to give some advice to newly elected officials for inclusion in an article appearing in the MAINE TOWNSMAN. The following are excerpts from the article:

Your Authority Is Collective

As a member of the city council or board of selectmen, your authority is collective. That means you will have to speak in terms of the council or the board as in "the board decided to…" But remember you can only speak for the board or council when the board or council has spoken. As an individual you cannot promise anything on behalf of the group.

The Majority Prevails

Most boards and councils are made up of an odd number of members, so that when a vote is taken, one opinion – that of the majority – prevails. Votes should put differences of opinion to rest and end discussion and dissension.

Be Open To Learning and Change

Check your preconceived notions at the door. Seek to understand why things are done the way they are before jumping in to change them. There may be good reasons why some things are done the way they are. At the same time, you shouldn’t go along with things just because "that’s how they’ve always been done."

Don’t Compete With Your Colleagues

You may have your spats, but you still have to live with each other. You have to have a working relationship with the rest of the board or council. If you don’t, if you each go your separate way, with each of you doing your own thing, you will become like a dysfunctional family, and be unable to accomplish anything.

Keep Your Sense of Humor

Light-hearted bantering and quipping during meetings is sometimes good for what ails. Do what is right but try to have fun.

SOME OF THE MAJOR ISSUES

While you will be required to address many issues unique to your community, there are several that affect most municipalities, including:

Property Taxes

How to provide essential quality services while maintaining a reasonable tax rate will be one of your biggest challenges. You’ll want to become familiar with the Homestead Exemption and the Circuit Breaker programs which are designed to bring relief to some homeowners and renters. You’ll also want to consider joining with neighboring municipalities in providing some services.

School Funding

Education costs are the biggest item in your budget. School funding is an emotional and political issue that sometimes pits municipal officials against school board members and other education spending advocates. How much to spend locally on schools, understanding state aid to education, and enhancing communication with local school officials are your biggest challenges here.

Solid Waste

One of the highest costs to a municipality, after education, is solid waste. How to boost recycling rates in order to reduce disposal costs is a challenge you will face. Pay-by-the bag is one of the tools employed by a growing number of municipalities to increase recycling and lower disposal costs.

Economic Development

Developing a diverse tax base along with jobs that provide a living wage is a growing issue among many municipalities, large and small. Tax Increment Financing, Community Development Block Grants, and regional initiatives are among the several tools at hand in this area.

Citizen Apathy and Anger

Some say citizen apathy and citizen anger are one and the same. How to get your citizenry positively engaged in the democratic process is a challenge – be it voting, voicing an opinion at a public hearing, or serving on the planning board. A lot will depend on your communication efforts.

MMA RESOURCES

Maine Municipal Association (MMA) is a voluntary membership organization of dues-paying local governments in Maine. MMA provides a variety of services to municipal officials, including:

Elected Officials Workshop. These late afternoon workshops are held around the state several times a year for newly elected officials as well as for veterans. MMA staff will walk you through municipal law and other aspects of your new job. The workshop is just the tip of the iceberg: more than 70 workshops ranging from cash flow management to what the law says about potholes are offered annually.

A Handbook for Municipal Officers. This is just one of numerous publications designed to help you learn and do your job. As a municipal officer, you will automatically receive the monthly MAINE TOWNSMAN and the weekly Legislative Bulletin (while the legislature is in session).

Legal Department. A team of attorneys, responding to over 11,000 calls and letters a year, is available to provide written and telephone advisory opinions to member municipalities.

Internet. More than 2,000 documents from tax data, to legal packets, to sample contracts and job descriptions are but a password and click away on MMA’s web site at www.memun.org. Begin by visiting the publicly accessible "Municipal Resources" and then register for the members-only area after you are elected.