There was any number of lessons and insights taken away from last year's heated debate over the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) statewide referendum, including the need for better communication with the public and more civic education about local government.
Even though the TABOR citizen-initiative was defeated, there is a recognition by those who successfully opposed it that the tax burden issue still rests heavily upon the minds of many Maine residents. With that perspective, a coalition of the anti-TABOR organizations, including MMA, Maine Education Association, Maine State Chamber of Commerce, and Maine Hospital Association, are working together on ways to avoid another costly, counter-productive referendum fight over Maine's acknowledged heavy tax burden.
MMA is taking the lead with an informational program called "Get Involved". Last month, the MMA Executive Committee endorsed the "Get Involved" campaign. A short-term objective of the campaign is to encourage more citizens to attend town meeting this year, addressing a pro-TABOR allegation that relatively few people attend town meeting.
Local control is more than a slogan. In Maine, residents of most communities have direct control over their local government through the town meeting process where they can take personal responsibility for municipal and school spending decisions.
The "Get Involved" campaign will work to find new ways to involve residents and taxpayers in local decision-making. A long-range goal of the campaign is to use direct communications as a principal tool in teaching the public and media more about how municipal government works in Maine and where and why their property tax dollars are being spent.
The "Get Involved" campaign also will be used to assist municipal officials, particularly in smaller towns, in getting their stories out to newspapers and other media about their community's efforts to comply with LD 1 spending limits and to help publicize the commitment that local officials have in meeting the LD 1 tax burden reduction goals.
The MMA Executive Committee recognizes that finding new ways to get people involved in local government and implementing a civic education campaign can't be accomplished over just one town meeting season. The hope is that over time, the "Get Involved" campaign will result in Maine citizens who are better informed about local government, have more trust in their elected officials and are more willing to participate directly in making local decisions.
'Get Involved' Startup
The "Get Involved" campaign was unveiled February 8 during a 30-minute talk show on TimeWarner Channel 9 in Augusta. The cable channel broadcasts from Lincoln to Kennebunkport and boasts 150,000 viewers.
MMA President Nick Mavadones, now serving a second stint as Portland mayor, joined MMA Communications Director Michael Starn in talking about local government challenges, tax burden issues and citizen involvement. They introduced MMA's "Get Involved" campaign to the cable audience.
The show, titled "Down on Main Street," will likely be aired several times on Time Warner's Channel 9 before the end of March, according to Time Warner officials, who have agreed to partner with the MMA to promote the "Get Involved" campaign.
MMA will share ideas with municipal officials about how to get more people to turn out for town meeting. Those ideas will be organized and publicized, and we will constantly be looking for more ideas to share.
Following the Channel 9 taping, Mavadones recorded a public service announcement (PSA) that will air on radio and TV, including the network TV affiliates in Maine, asking people to get more involved in their town meeting this year and help make the decisions that control both the quality of life in their community and how much money will be raised in property taxes for the coming year.
The PSA will run from mid-February through mid-March, with the goal of re-airing it for the May-June town meeting season.
Reaching out to Citizens
MMA's "Get Involved" campaign will run parallel to and complement a broader civic education about local government goal of the Association, aimed at helping citizens better understand how local government works and how they can take an active and meaningful role in it.
It is hoped that this kind of involvement by citizens in the governmental affairs of their community will encourage them to take ownership of and develop a stronger connection to local government. With increased citizen involvement in local government, MMA believes future tax capping initiatives will be less attractive as a way to influence government decision-making.
As part of the program, regional workshops will be offered at no cost for municipal staff members interested in learning how to write basic press releases and newsletters as two effective ways to immediately increase direct communication with voters and taxpayers.
This service is needed most perhaps in the smallest towns in Maine which seldom get media coverage, especially now as some of the state's largest papers have downsized and eliminated local coverage in some communities.
At the same time, the MMA will work with the media to create a better understanding by reporters and editors of the impacts of state and school spending decisions on Maine's overall tax burden. We also will work to get more media attention for new and innovative ways towns find to increase citizen participation.
Many Maine communities have picked up on this same theme and taken specific action since the November 7 election to encourage more voter participation, connect with residents on a more intimate level or to respond more directly to local concerns.
All of these efforts have received positive news coverage in various newspapers.
For example, all budget committee meetings will be televised this year in Kennebunk.
In Auburn, city councilors moved the "public comment" period of their meetings to the end of the agenda to give people more time to ask questions.
In Portland, city officials have started tracking complaints from the public to ensure each one gets a response and resolution.
In Waterville, Police Chief John Morris recently started a new program in the North End neighborhood, which will involve working directly with residents to improve the quality of life in the area. The program will include foot patrols, increased enforcement of traffic laws and checks on sex offenders and potential drug houses.
MMA has contracted with former longtime Maine reporter Liz Chapman to help implement the "Get Involved" campaign and increase media coverage for LD 1 and other compelling municipal stories and trends.
During her long career in Maine, Chapman specialized in local and state government coverage. She will offer regional workshops this spring to show municipal staff how to effectively and efficiently get news to the public with a basic news release. She also will offer workshops on how to write newsletters to tell the public about some of the stories that will never make the papers but still deserve to be told.
Chapman also will work directly with towns, at their request, to get important stories into local and area newspapers when initial attempts have failed. She welcomes ideas for both the "Get Involved" and civic education campaigns. For more information or to "Get Involved" yourself, submit ideas, questions and feedback to Chapman at 207-623-1753 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.