Maine: An Encyclopedia
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Local Government

"Signs of the Towns"in New England traces its origins to 1620 and the Mayflower Compact written and agreed to by the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony. By 1652 the Colony asserted its authority over that part of Maine known then and now as York(shire) County. By having local townsmen sign a statement accepting that authority, the tradition of popular participation in town affairs was begun.

Towns and cities are the two types of municipal government in Maine. Plantations are a special non-municipal, town-like local government. Counties, also a product of the colonial era, perform limited functions for their constituent municipalities. Special districts for schools, water and sewer administration, planning and other purposes overlap municipalities and counties.

In 1865 the Maine Legislature enacted an early version of today’s “right-to-know” law. Chapter 305 of that year required the selectmen, treasurer, and anyone else involved in a town’s finances to “make detailed written or printed reports of all their financial transactions” before the annual town meeting. Reports were to be “open during the usual hours of business to the inspection of any legal voter. . . .” It was a tough law, punishable by a fine of $50 for each refusal to allow access or create the reports – a substantial sum in 1865.

In 1939, when the law was amended to require creation of copies and inspections three days before the annual meeting, the $50 fine was still in effect and still a severe penalty during the Great Depression of the period.

For a profile of any municipality in Maine, use the search function above by entering * and the name, such as *Rockland or *Old Town.  Find related articles by entering the name with no *.  For a list of articles for all municipalities,  select the “Government” tab above, then “Cities & Towns.” Unorganized townships have no local governments.

Organization

Towns

Skowhegan School, Site of Many 19th Century Town Meetings (2003)

Skowhegan School, Site of Many 19th Century Town Meetings (2003)

Throughout New England, “Town Meetings” became the standard instrument of local government with authority exercised through, usually three, selectmen. In one sense, it was a form of pure democracy, but even so it did not allow the participation of women or slaves, and in some cases property ownership or church attendance was required for voting.

Many aspects of town government still practiced today are the products of 17th and 18th century colonial laws. Early town charters required that constables and road surveyors (now road commissioners) be chosen; later town clerks were mandatory to maintain the official records and “select persons” were authorized. In 1691 the Massachusetts General Court (colonial legislature) ordered that all town meetings be held in March. Moderators were required in 1715. Thus the Maine tradition of March town meetings continues, run by moderators, in which select persons are elected and town business is conducted.

Carmel Town Office (2001)

Carmel Town Office (2001)

A “town” is created only by a special act of the Maine Legislature and thereby assumes certain obligations and gains certain privileges common to all towns. The “Home Rule” provisions of the state Constitution and laws allows towns to change their forms of government and to adopt local ordinances (laws) that do not conflict with state or federal laws. Towns may adopt a charter, like a local constitution, to establish their governing structure.

Those that have select boards are governed by Maine State law: Title 30-A,

§2526. Choice and qualifications of town officials

A. A town may determine at a meeting held at least 90 days before the annual meeting whether 3, 5 or 7 will be elected to each board and their terms of office.
(1) Once the determination has been made, it stands until revoked at a meeting held at least 90 days before the annual meeting.
(2) If a town fails to fix the number, 3 shall be elected. If a town fails to fix the term, it is for one year.
Portland City Hall Tower (2002)

Portland City Hall Tower (2002)

Cities

Cities are usually, but not always, larger communities that feel the need for more formal arrangements. By law, cities must adopt a charter (towns may have a charter) and universally have a representative body, such as a council, rather than a town meeting, to pass ordinances and conduct the business of the city.

Some cities have popularly elected mayors who often have policy making authority. In others, the “mayor” is selected by the city council to perform ceremonial duties and chair the council meetings, but with little independent authority.

Forms of Municipal Government

The six basic forms of municipal government in Maine are the following: annual meeting-assessors (for plantations), town meeting-select board* , town meeting-select board-manager, town meeting-council-manager, council-manager, and council-mayor.

Town Meeting-Select Board

Town Meeting in a School (2003)

Town Meeting in a School (2003)

The town meeting is held on one day each year, often in March. Voters decide important issues facing their community by approving or disapproving articles placed on the warrant announcing the meeting. The meeting moderator, usually chosen pursuant to the first article, conducts the meeting according to rules of procedure and state law. Any resident of the town has the right to speak; non-residents may speak only with a consenting vote of the meeting.

(See the warrants for six towns from Porter in 1925 to Belgrade in 2002 by selecting Government>Cities & Towns>Warrants from the menu bar at the top of this page.)

The town meeting is the legislative body of the community and may pass local laws, known as ordinances. It also passes a budget for the year, decides how much to raise in local taxes, and elects town officers, including members of the select board. Special town meetings may be called to deal with emergencies or with specific issues that arise during the year.

Usually numbering three, but at times five or seven, the select board holds the executive authority of the town. While charged with carrying out the will of the voters, they also have certain powers granted by state law such as arranging town meetings, holding elections, regulating finances and administering programs regarding highways, human services and planning.

Secret Ballot Voting at Town Meeting (2003)

Secret Ballot Voting at Town Meeting (2003)

Select board members and other town officers (clerk, treasurer, road commissioner, school board members) are elected by secret ballot, often on the day of the town meeting. Other items may be placed on the secret ballot at the discretion of the selectmen.

Town Meeting-Select Board-Administrative Assistant

Some towns, not ready to commit to having a manager, have established the position of Administrative Assistant to the board. While providing support for routine administration, the position does not have the special authority given to managers under Maine law. Final administrative authority rests with the Select Board by State law. In addition, some towns have decided to appoint their clerk, treasurer, and/or road commissioner.

Town Meeting-Select Board-Town Administrator

This form is similar to the Administrative Assistant option, except that the Town Administrator’s role is closer to that of a Town Manager. Still, final administrative authority rests with the Select Board.

Town Meeting-Select Board-Manager

Establishing the position of Town Manager introduces a new element into the traditional town meeting-select board form of government. The Manager has authority to appoint certain town employees and has the responsibility for preparing a budget for the select board to submit to the town meeting, and for administering that budget when adopted.

Frequently, a town with a manager has fewer elected officials. The clerk, treasurer, tax assessor, road commissioner are often appointed by the manager who is responsible for the overall administration of town affairs. In a few instances, one manager serves two or three adjoining small towns.

Town Meeting-Council-Manager

This form of local government retains the role of the manager but gives more legislative authority to the council than select board has. Of course, this means the town meeting voters have less legislative influence, though they retain the power to approve budgets and raise revenue. Few towns have adopted this option.

Council-Manager or Council-Mayor-Manager

Bangor City Hall (2001)

Bangor City Hall (2001)

While town meeting based forms may be adopted under the general laws of the state, others must be adopted through a local charter. The Council-Manager system is one of these. As the name implies, there is no town meeting.

The council takes the place of both the town meeting, in its legislative role, and the select board, in its executive role. In this case, the manager prepares a budget for the council to consider, modify, and adopt; and usually appoints department heads. The council adopts all ordinances.

The manager administers the programs funded in the budget and insures the enforcement of the ordinances. Though the whole community usually elects select boards, council members are often elected by districts or wards.

The symbolic head of the town is either a person selected by the council, who may be known as the chairperson or as mayor, or a mayor elected directly by the voters. In either case, the person has largely ceremonial duties, presiding over the council meeting and at public occasions. Some may make minor appointments, but have little formal authority.

Council-Mayor-Administrator

Currently used primarily in cities, the council-mayor-administrator form must be adopted by a charter that specifies the duties of the council and the mayor.

Mayors typically have much of the budget drafting and personnel management authority granted to managers. In addition, they may have veto power over council decisions. Elected at the same time as the council members, a mayor tends to have more prominence since he or she represents the city as a whole, while councilors generally represent districts or wards. A charter may also establish the position of city or town manager in place of the administrator.

Assessors-Annual Meeting: Plantations

Small Meetinghouse, Dennistown Plantation (2004)

Small Meetinghouse, Dennistown Plantation (2004)

The plantation is the simplest form of local government in Maine. It usually consists of three assessors, who also function as a select board, with few if any other officials. Plantations are usually in remote, forested areas in which most of the land is owned by paper companies or other large landowners.

According to Maine law, residents of an Unorganized Township may petition for a formal determination by the County Commissioners of whether the township has a population of 200 or more. If the commissioners’ report “indicates that the township has a population of 200 or more, the County Commissioners shall, with the consent of a majority of the petitioners . . . , issue their warrant to an inhabitant of the unincorporated township, commanding that inhabitant to notify the voters of the unincorporated township, to assemble on a day and at a place named in the warrant, to choose a moderator, clerk, 3 assessors, treasurer, collector of taxes, constable, school committee and other necessary plantation officers.”

The annual meeting of the voters (essentially a town meeting) is the basic governing body,  passing local ordinances, approving a budget, levying the taxes, and acting on local concerns that are limited by law.  It also elects town officers, including the three-member board of assessors as the executive arm administering, enforcing, and carrying out decisions made by the town meeting. Plantations elect their clerks, treasurers, tax collectors, and a school board. Assessors appoint a road commissioner if the annual meeting has raised funds for road and bridge repair.

The few dozen existing plantations collectively have only a few thousand inhabitants. Virtually all plantations are subject to the planning and zoning requirements of the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission.

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*The traditional term is “selectmen,” from when that was truly the case.  Often a majority, sometimes all members, are women.  Many towns now refer to their “town fathers” as the Select Board.

Additional resources

Donovan, Anthony J. Challenges in Democratic Governance: A View from Maine; The Secession Movement. Portland, Me. Muskie Institute for Public Affairs. 1994.

Field, George Marion. Government of Maine Towns. 1935. [University of Maine, Raymond H. Fogler Library, Special Collections]

Haag, James J. Forms of Municipal Government in the United States and in Maine. Bangor, Me. Bureau of Public Administration, University of Maine at Orono. 1970.

Maine Land Use Regulation Commission.”2010 Comprehensive Land Use Plan.” http://www.maine.gov/doc/lurc/reference/clup/3_Jurisdiction_2010CLUP.pdf  (accessed July 1, 2012)

Maine Municipal Association. Municipal Officers manual. Augusta, Me. Maine Municipal Association. 2010.

Public Laws of the State of Maine: Chapter 305 of 1865; Chapter 218 of 1939.

Roberts, Kenneth L. Local Government in Maine. Augusta: Maine Municipal Association. 1979.

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