So You Are Thinking of Running for Local Office … GREAT!
It’s probably the most challenging job you’ll ever have (and the lowest paying). But it’ll probably be among the most interesting and rewarding too. View video: "The Challenge of Municipal Leadership"
For 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 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 the facets of local government including municipal law and finance.
If you are elected, however, 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 will be cornered anywhere at any time on anything. Because, unlike elected officials at the state and federal level, you are in direct contact with the people who elected you on a daily basis.
- 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 and skills you never knew you had or 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 manager, to which bid to accept for paving the roads, to how to pay for solid waste disposal, or whether to join with neighboring towns in a regional approach to providing for dispatch services.
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:
- There is the town meeting form, in which the town meeting not only passes laws, it also approves the budget, and elects the part-time board of selectmen that carry out the decisions made by the meeting. Of the hundreds of municipalities in Maine, over 85% of them are governed entirely by this form of government.
- Then there is the council form in which an elected or representative council, following public hearings, passes laws and approves the budget. About 15% of the municipalities are governed entirely or in-part by councils. In approximately one-third of these municipalities, a town meeting approves the budget.
While most councils are served by a manager, only about 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, supervise, and terminate the manager.
- In general, the manager hires, supervises and terminates other appointed municipal employees.
Your term as an elected official will be more productive if you understand some basic law:
- HOME RULE & MANDATES:
Municipalities are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution; they are the creations of state government. And 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 pre-empt those taken at the local level. For example, local governments in recent years have had to close down their landfills, build salt-sand sheds, and write comprehensive land use plans, to name a few of the state mandates coming out of Augusta. Then there are the water and wastewater requirements coming out of Washington. 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 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, can not 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 in-law has applied for the town manager’s job.)
- MAINE TORT CLAIMS ACT:
Maine’s 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.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 an indepth look at municipal liability issues, attend one of our Elected Officials Workshops, held (around the state) several times a year for newly elected officials as well as for veterans.
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 MEETING & PUBLIC HEARINGS
While both 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 the public may attend meetings of the council or board of selectmen, so-called public meetings, it has 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 & 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.As regards 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 PRESS
Not many residents will attend your meetings, but they will read the press’ 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.
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 TELEVISION
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 -- the following are excerpts from the advice submitted:
- 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 can not promise anything on behalf of the group.
- THE MAJORITY PREVAILS
Most boards or council 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 & 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 "have 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 because, 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, 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 Maine Residents Property Tax & Rent Rebate Program (also known as the "Circuit Breaker" Program) 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
The biggest item in your budget, it’s an issue that often pits municipal officials against their counterparts in the school systems. How to increase state aid to education and how to enhance communication with local school officials are your biggest challenges here.
- SOLID WASTE
One of the highest costs to a municipality, after education. How to boost recycling rates in order to reduce disposal costs is another 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/ANGER
Some say they are one and the same. How to get citizenry positively engaged in the democratic process, be it turning out to vote, to voice an opinion at a public hearing, or to serve on the planning board. A lot will depend on your communication efforts be it through a live broadcast of your public meetings or a quarterly newsletter sent to all taxpayers.
MAINE MUNICIPAL ASSOCIATION
A voluntary membership organization of dues-paying local governments in Maine that provides cities and towns with a variety of services:
- 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 pot holes are offered annually.
- Municipal Officers Manual. 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 (while the Legislature is in session) Legislative Bulletin.
- Legal Department. A team of attorneys, responding to thousands of calls and letters a year, is available to provide written and telephone advisory opinions to member municipalities.
- MMA Web site. Provides access to documents ranging from tax data, to legal packets, to sample contracts and job descriptions. The resources are but a password and click away at http://www.memun.org. Begin by visiting the publicly accessible municipal resources and then register for the members-only area when you are elected.