By Scott Planting
At the opening of the March 8, 2022 Town of Mt. Desert’s special town meeting, moderator Bill Ferm asked the 103 town residents in attendance to observe a moment of silence to remember the people of Ukraine. After the silence, he asked us to recognize their bravery with applause. The applause was sustained for several minutes. The purpose of the special town meeting was described in Article 6 of the Warrant: “Shall the voters of the Town of Mount Desert authorize the Board of Selectmen of the Town or its designee to negotiate and enter into an agreement providing for the acquisition of the assets, liabilities and operations of the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service into the Town’s Fire Department.”
The Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service has provided emergency medical services to the town since 1938: 84 years. The reason the Ambulance Service is being acquired by the town’s fire department is because the private ambulance service cannot attract enough volunteer or part-time emergency medical technicians to continue operating.
There wasn’t too much debate over Article 6; it was overwhelmingly approved by voice vote. A few people spoke about the decline in volunteerism which is impacting the fire department as well. Questions were asked about the cost of the new service. People seemed to be in agreement that consolidation was inevitable. The last article on the warrant, Article 9 asked the town to appropriate $1,000,000 to make improvements to the Somesville Fire Station “to include…new staff sleeping quarters, a day room, a new shower and bathrooms and public lobby and other fire, ambulance, furnishings” generated the most questions. Fire chief Mike Bender stated the new fire and ambulance service is going to need to hire additional fire and ambulance staff to provide round the clock service, thus the need for overnight accommodations. One town member noted that the lack of affordable housing on the island required the need for sleeping quarters. The article was approved. The town will gather at its regular town meeting on May 5 to approve appropriating money for the new fire/EMS service.
I like town meetings. They’ve been part of my life for years. In Farmington, Maine, the March Town Meeting was the rite of Spring, people coming out from winter hibernation. I liked sitting high up in the uncomfortable bleachers of the Municipal building listening to people sound off with stored up complaints about snow plowing and taxes. It’s local democracy in action, one of the few places where people feel they have a voice in local governance.
At the Mt. Desert Town Meeting, moderator Bill Ferm (elected and sworn in is the first order of business) is respectful of citizens. He knows most of us by our first names and calls us by our names when we raise our hands to talk. He’s fair and accommodating, making sure each person is heard and understood. He does a good job. Next to the moderator’s podium are several tables where selectmen, town manager, town officials—fire chief, assessor, treasurer, code enforcement– sit, ready to be called upon to answer questions. Like the Farmington Town Meeting, last week’s special meeting is a time to say hello to neighbors you haven’t seen in months. It’s a rural Maine crowd; we’re dressed warmly on this cold, blustery night, in well worn down jackets and jeans and muddy boots. We are young and we are old; some of us are new to the community, others are members of generational families.
All of us love the Town. One thing I’ve learned living in small towns most my life is that the people who live in them are not a collection of individuals who make up their minds about issues and elections based on only individually held economic interests or personal concerns. The towns in which we live influence us as well, defining the moral fabric of what we consider to be right and good. By moral fabric I mean a place where people feel an obligation to one another. We may pride ourselves as being rugged individualists, but we are not fundamentally that. We are people who are community-oriented. This place is our home.
“Community is the product of people working together on problems.” I like that definition; simple and to the point. It was written by American philosopher Robert Nisbet. He continues, “people do not come together in significant and lasting associations merely to be together. They come together to do something that cannot easily be done in individual isolation.” (1)
The Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service meets Nisbet’s definition. I like thinking about our neighbors coming together 84 years ago to begin an all volunteer service. At the town meeting, the director of the ambulance service told us the purpose in its founding and continuing today was to provide outstanding emergency service to all residents of Mt. Desert. It’s a great story of a community of people working on a common problem for the good of all.
At the Town Meeting several of the older town residents wondered what had happened to the “spirit of volunteerism” that created the ambulance service. It’s a good question impacting not just our local fire and ambulance service, but reflects a national trend of declining community participation. I don’t have the answer. But, I do know communities are fragile and easily undone. So, take a minute to thank a member of the Northeast Harbor Ambulance Service for answering our emergency calls for 84 years. Express a word of appreciation to a town fireman, a selectperson; to all the people who volunteer to serve on a town committee or board.
We live in a time when because of a pandemic we’ve grown apart from one another, increasingly separate from our neighbors. By contrast community as experienced at the special town meeting is tangible, immediate, based on direct contact, mutual awareness, and a sense of empathy with those with whom we share our lives in this particular place—Mt. Desert Island. It’s fragile and needs to be constantly nurtured. The key point for me is that our community is not simply made up of a collection of individuals. Our community shapes and influences us, giving us a shared identity. It’s important.
(1) Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community, ISI Books, Reprinted 2019.
Scott Planting was President of the Maine Seacoast Mission from 2010-2019;
Executive Director of Mission at the Eastward in Farmington, Maine from 1975-2010;
and is an honorably retired Presbyterian Minister. He lives year-round in Northeast Harbor, Maine.