What if they shut down city hall and nothing happened?
LEBANON, MAINE — THIS is the tale of a town that decided to shut itself down.
That's right. When residents in this hamlet didn't like the new budget drawn up by their selectmen, they voted to close down the town hall.
For most of the summer, that meant they couldn't get fishing or marriage licenses. They couldn't register their cars here. And the rescue squad was scrambling to borrow gloves and other supplies from neighboring towns.
It might be a surprising civic strategy to some people. But not here in Maine. Maybe it's old-fashioned Yankee independence. Or maybe it's just the orneriness built up over the long cold winters. But lots of folks in this state take great pride and even a little glee in bucking against any big-shot powers that try to boss them around.
There was that time in 1775 when a British sea captain demanded that Mainers sign an oath before he'd give them supplies. They grabbed the goods, rammed his boat, and pounced on his crew with muskets and pitchforks.
Today legions of Mainers trek to Canada for cheaper prescription drugs rather than fork over money to big pharmaceutical firms. The state has even sued the companies up to the Supreme Court over high drug costs.
In Lebanon, it was the selectmen's pay that got most people riled. For years, the town's three elected leaders were paid $10 an hour and were typically taking home between $15,000 to $24,000 a year, by one account. That works out to between 28 and 46 hours a week.
But there was growing suspicion about whether some selectmen were really working all those hours. After all, this is no big-city metropolis with a teeming bureaucracy. It's a two-gas-pump town with about 5,000 people.
The town center is a crossroads with a packed country store. Bread and handguns are available in one aisle, Windex and shotguns in the next. Scattered about the town's 78-square miles are an antique store, a few restaurants, and a welding shop.
THEN, this year, the selectmen tried to institute a yearly salary of $15,000 for themselves. "How in the world should a selectman in our town make that much money?" asks one business owner, brandishing a calculator and vigorously punching in figures. (The owner asked not to be named, saying "People get pretty nasty about this stuff around here.")
If selectmen in a nearby town get paid $20 per meeting, the owner says, "and even if they're meeting twice a week, that comes out to, let's see, $2,080 a year."
Outrage of this sort spread throughout the town. And residents revolted. They voted down the town budget, including a plan to buy an ambulance from a nearby town. Suddenly Lebanon's eight employees were collecting unemployment checks. And the town had just become America's most extreme experiment in small government something akin to Newt Gingrich's dream come true.
By some accounts it worked pretty well.
"The town is practically normal," says Country Store owner Al Noyes. One reason he supported the revolt was that the next town had offered Lebanon its used ambulance for $7,000. But Lebanon's budget called for up to $50,000 for a new vehicle. That further raised suspicions. "Most people know that if a government entity is given $50,000, it will take it," says Mr. Noyes, "even if it doesn't need it."
Indeed, a hardy skepticism of government pervades this place. After all, this town in southern Maine is just a few miles from New Hampshire, where big government is practically evil incarnate.
Yet Noyes and other Lebanon residents are hardly as radical as antigovernment militia types out West. In fact, during the shutdown, Noyes advanced the fire and rescue crews nearly $400 in gasoline from his pumps.
"Thank God for that," says Jason Cole, the assistant rescue chief. He bought Band-Aids at Wal-Mart with his own money. But to him that wasn't enough. In July, a woman at a local sky-diving site crashed into the ground and had to wait 20 minutes for an ambulance. She later died making some rethink the town shutdown.
That was one reason the new budget passed overwhelmingly last week. Now the town hall is open, and employees are back at work. A new ambulance is on the way. But the selectmen also relented and agreed to stay on hourly pay. "I'm going to be carefully tracking my hours," says Selectman Darryl Moore. One of his colleagues, though, says he won't be running again.
To many residents, taking the town's politicians down a notch was just right. Perhaps the move fitted with the tradition of Samuel Danforth, an early New England preacher. Explaining why so many Europeans left the royal opulence of their homelands for the wilds of America, he said: "We came not hither to see men clothed like courtiers," for, he said, "The affectation of courtly pomp and gallantry is very unsuitable in a wilderness."