CITIZEN EDUCATION: Trying to inform and positively engage people
(from Maine Townsman, October 1998)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

In case you hadn’t noticed there is a movement afoot in local government to connect with its citizenry. There have always been municipal officials who made an extra effort to keep their citizens informed and engaged; however, the current efforts far surpass anything that has been attempted before.

Many of the efforts make use of the latest technology. Some provide live cable coverage of council (Scarborough) or selectmen (Poland) meetings, while others provide access to municipal ordinances (Veazie) via the Internet.

Many are putting a municipal stamp on such traditional tools as newsletters (Lamoine) and calendars (Auburn). And there is more than one town – Livermore Falls and East Millinocket to name two – in which the town administrator writes a regular column for the local weekly newspaper. Not to mention the dozens of towns "reinventing" their town reports with good graphics and writing, while on the road to winning the MMA Municipal Reports Competition.

Faced with citizen apathy and anger, faced with complex issues with no simple solutions, faced with competing demands for limited resources, but most important, faced with the realization that governments are only a part of what makes democracy work, cities and towns have no choice but to reach out and connect with their citizenry.

But this article is not about the great things Maine cities and towns are doing in this arena; the TOWNSMAN has written about their efforts over the years (see sidebar) and shall continue to do so, with great interest.

Rather, it’s about what the Maine Municipal Association is currently doing to develop an informed and positively engaged citizenry. Be it working to support the efforts of its membership in this arena or combining efforts with other public institutions, as it has in its most recent initiative, the School and Local Government Project, citizen education is on the move at the MMA.

It should be noted that all of the resources cited below are accessible and ready for downloading from MMA’s website: http://www.memun.org

SCHOOL & LOCAL GOVERNMENT PROJECT

No longer will an elected official, when asked to talk to local students about local government, wonder what to talk about. No longer will they feverishly scour the office for suitable materials to bring to the classroom. No longer will they pass up the opportunity to talk to "future voters/taxpayers/citizens" because they didn’t have time to prepare.

With MMA’s "School and Local Government Project", discussion questions, resource materials, such as tax data, sample ordinances, articles and legal notes from the MAINE TOWNSMAN, relevant newspaper clippings, and lesson plans are but a click away on MMA’s web site: (click) Local Government in Maine, (click) School & Local Government Project.

The six-month-old project is a collaborative effort of the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Council for the Social Studies, which represents approximately 1,000 social studies teachers in the state. For their part, the teachers are developing and testing lesson plans that actively engage students in local government. For its part, the MMA is developing and maintaining the site. MMA is also linking the lesson plans to its vast collections of ordinances, articles, etc. In doing so it is providing the teachers and students with unique, one-of-a kind teaching materials.

More than a dozen lessons that actively engage students in the process of local government, complete with teaching materials, are currently in development. In the coming months, these lessons and others will be tested and amended by social studies teachers across the state. Use of the Internet ensures that the materials will be timely and easily accessible.

The project is built upon the following four "themes" or functions of local government.

• Setting Boundaries (authority).

• Providing for the Common Good (services).

• Providing for Order and Security (regulations).

• Setting Priorities (revenues).

For example, under the theme "Providing for Order and Security" there are discussion questions regarding curfews. There are also links to curfew ordinances from a number of Maine towns, as well as court rulings on the issue, not to mention a lesson on the subject that has been developed by a teacher in Camden and is currently undergoing classroom testing. You get the idea!

Opportunities for Municipal Officials to Get Involved

The project is unique in a number of ways. Not only does it rely primarily on the Internet, consciously avoiding expensive and static textbooks, it also allows for input and feedback from municipal officials as well as teachers! Municipal officials can:

• Use the site as a teaching resource and provide the project with feedback.

• Submit their ideas (discussion questions, resources, lessons, suggestions, etc.).

• Help get the word out about the project to teachers in their schools as well as to other officials.

For more information on the project, write to Jeri Holt, ResourceCenter@memun.org . Or call them at 1-800-452-8786.

PUBLICATION WORKSHOP

Municipal officials toying with the idea of "reinventing" their annual report or trying their hand at publishing a newsletter will want to attend "Getting the Word Out", a day-long workshop that has been offered by the MMA annually for the past five years. As the brochure announcing the workshop notes, topics addressed include:

• What Makes for a Winning Annual Report.

• Newsletters that People Will Read.

• Clear and Concise Writing, Creative Graphics.

• Production Costs.

This is a hands-on workshop with lots of sample materials to take home. Participants engage in writing exercises, reviewing samples of "good" publications and, if they wish, having their publication critiqued. Included in the packet of materials is a "Directory of Municipal Newsletters", describing in detail the newsletters that are currently being published by more than 30 Maine cities and towns. They bear such names as The Arrow (Arundel), The Lamoine Quarterly, and Scarborough Today and are published from once a year to once a month.

The next workshop is scheduled for Wednesday, November 18 at the offices of the MMA. For more information, contact Joan Kiszely at the MMA at 1-800-452-8786. The directory can be downloaded from MMA’s website: (click) Local Government in Maine.

PUBLICATIONS

Local Government in Maine

Municipal officials looking for a discussion of the evolution of local government in Maine or the five basic forms of local government in Maine need look no further than this 100-page book. Written by a former MAINE TOWNSMAN staff member, in cooperation with the Maine Studies Curriculum Project, for use in the public schools, more than 20,000 copies of the book have been distributed since its first printing in 1979. While the numbers have changed since then, the basics remain constant, making this a valuable beginner's guide, awaiting an update.

The book is but a click away, ready for downloading (click) Local Government in Maine, (click) About Local Government in Maine, (click) Schools Project, (click) Local Government in Maine (full text)).

Homeowners Guide to Property Taxes

Municipal officials looking for a concise yet comprehensive description of the property tax system in Maine to distribute to their taxpayers will want to obtain copies of this brochure. Among other things, it answers such questions as:

• What Property Is Taxed?

• How is Property Assessed?

• How Are Property Taxes Collected?

• What Services Do Property Taxes Fund?

It also describes Maine’s three major property tax relief programs: Revenue Sharing, Circuit Breaker and Homestead Exemption. First published in 1989, the brochure was most recently updated in July, 1998.

Limited quantities are free to municipalities. The information can also be downloaded from MMA’s web site: (click) Local Government in Maine, (click) About Local Government in Maine, (click) Property Tax. It would make a great addition to your own municipal web site. Let us know if you have linked to it.

Legal (Information) Packet: Right-To-Know

Municipal officials intent on maintaining a policy of open government will not want to be without this information packet. One of more than two dozen information packets available from MMA’s Legal Services Department, it addresses the critical question: What does Maine law (1 MRSA subsection 401 et seq) say about a citizen’s access to public proceedings and public documents. The packet contains a copy of the law, as well as a TOWNSMAN article and several legal notes on the subject.

The packet is available from MMA’s Legal Services Department. It is also available for downloading from MMA’s website: (click) Municipal Resources, (click) Legal

TOWNSMAN ARTICLES

In recent years, the following articles have appeared in the MAINE TOWNSMAN. They were written to serve as tools for better informing citizens about the workings of local government.

A Citizen’s Guide to Town Meeting (February, 1998)

Contains an extensive reader-friendly glossary as well as detailed answers to ten questions about town meeting including:

• Do I have to know parliamentary procedure to participate? (No. It provides advice on how to approve an article and how to amend an article.)

• Won’t I seem like an idiot if I ask a question? (No. It provides a list of some common questions to ask, in case you are at a loss)

• Suppose I don’t want people to know my vote? (It describes five different methods of voting used at town meeting, including written ballots).

Creating Dialogue (May, 1997)

Contains a case history of one Maine town (Yarmouth) that engaged in "roundtable" discussions with its citizenry when faced with declining revenues from its largest taxpayer (CMP). Argues for dialogue over debate and cites 16 differences between the two forms of discourse. Also, provides tips on facilitating a group discussion and points to groups in Maine and Connecticut that can provide you with resources for undertaking roundtable discussions in your community.

Gearing Up for Local Access (April, 1997)

Contains advice on negotiating for and purchasing the equipment that your town will need to equip a studio capable of covering your board and council meetings live. Also describes the impact of live coverage on those "under the lights". Tells you about the work of the Community Television Association of Maine.

Demystifying Assessing (February, 1996)

Looks at what cities and towns around the state are doing to enhance their taxpayers’ understanding of property values and their relationship to the property tax.

Some towns substitute the word equalization for the word revaluation. Some towns use simple math to show what happens when properties are not assessed equitably. And some towns use pictures on computer disKs when comparing properties.

Home Pages (November, 1996)

A beginners’ guide to the so-called home page or web site. Lots of basic advice on how to get started. Focuses on the towns of Bath, Raymond and Veazie and the stories behind their web sites. How they did it; what’s on them.

Presenting the Budget (January, 1996)

Contains numerous ideas for presenting a reader-friendly municipal budget in your annual report. Many of the examples take a "how-does-it-affect-me-approach". One example drawn from Scarborough’s award-winning annual report compares the cost of its services on a weekly basis to the cost of electricity, telephone, and cable TV Another example, drawn from Windham, breaks down what a taxpayer in that town receives in services for each tax dollar paid (31 cents for road maintenance, 23 cents for police safety, etc.)

The above articles are all available for downloading from MMA’s website: (click) Municipal Resources, (click) Townsman.

ARTICLES IN THE WORKS

So You Are Thinking of Running For Office

A guide for citizens who are thinking of running for a seat on the city council or board of selectmen is now in first draft. It contain a variety of information, ranging from the legal background of home rule to "in the trenches" advice from veteran officials to a list of resources available from the MMA. Plans are to publish it in the form of an article in the TOWNSMAN and on the Internet early in 1999.

Connecting with Citizens

A column to appear monthly in the Townsman, beginning in January 1999. It will publish good ideas that cities and towns around the state are developing to better inform and engage their citizenry. Start calling them in by contacting Jo Josephson at 1-800-452-8786.


 SIDEBAR:

Cities and Towns: Informing & Engaging

What follows is but a small sampling of what municipal officials around the state are doing these days to inform and positively engage their citizens.

• In Scarborough, (pop.14,800), they’ve been broadcasting council meetings over the local access channel since the mid 80’s. The early shows were taped; today, not only is the meeting broadcast live, it is re-broadcast at least nine times in the course of a week following the meeting.

• In Bar Harbor (pop. 4,698) a 22- member citizen’s budget (warrant) committee meets separately and with the town council over several months. The result is a unified set of recommendations to the town meeting and training ground for future members of the town council.

• In Bridgton (pop.4,213), a few years back the manager developed an interesting way of explaining the impact of new items in the town budget. He calculated that for every $3,360 raised on the town meeting floor, it would mean a one-cent increase in the tax rate. As such, a requested $80,000 new fire truck could raise the tax rate by 24 cents.

• In Readfield (pop. 2,149), when the part-time town manager of 14 years gave 60 days notice, the town immediately took out an ad in the local paper seeking volunteers for a citizens advisory committee to assist the five selectmen in the task of hiring a new manager.

• In Veazie (pop.1,739) and numerous other towns around the state, home (Web) pages are sprouting like mushrooms after a summer rain, complete with minutes of the recent selectmen’s most recent meeting, not to mention the text of all of the town’s ordinances.

• In Lamoine (pop. 1,366), they’ve been publishing a newsletter four-times a year since 1991; they’ve been publishing one in Canton (pop. 951) six-times a year since 1984.