The Selectman

Hometown Heroes, People
on February 25, 2001

Early in March, Norm McKenney will be back in the hot seata place he says hes enjoyed being for the last 28 years. I like the people, says the 72-year-old former poultry farmer. You have to like people in this job and I do.

The job McKenney refers to is town selectman, a 200-year-old New England institution thats like no other public office in the nation. In small towns like Baldwin, Maine, with a population of 1,400, a board of three to five part-time selectmen (or women) runs the town during the year. Until early spring, they make day-to-day decisions such as which roads the town can afford to repair, enforcing zoning laws, and generally keeping the town hallin Baldwin, adjacent to the elementary schoolopen and operating smoothly.

But when annual town meeting time rolls around, anything can happen.

Weve had a few pretty warm town meetings over the years, admits McKenney, a Baldwin native who still lives on part of the 140-acre farm thats been in his family for four generations. You have to be ready to answer some questions, sometimes some pretty rough question, he adds, employing his trademark tendency to understate contentious issues.

Astride the picturesque Saddleback Hills just west of Maines popular Sebago Lake, the pastoral-looking town might appear an unlikely candidate for acrimony. With logging, a large sawmill, and a few farms its major income producers, Baldwin is a quiet community with no real center that spreads out on either side of the hills dividing it. And most Baldwinites agreetown meeting day usually passes without incident.

Unlike the town meetings national politicians use for self-promotion on network television, a real town meeting gives the power to set policy directly to the voters. Every March, McKenney and his two colleagues get their marching orders for the coming year, as well as a review of their job performance for the last year. And sometimes, voters arrive in a bad mood.

Indeed, as recently as 1998, the questioning of Baldwin town officials got so rancorous that county sheriffs deputies had to be called in to prevent matters from going beyond mere shouting and name-calling. That wasnt good, says McKenney, notably reluctant to discuss the entire affair.

The problem arose when a local ABC-TV affiliate proposed building a communications tower on a town hilltop. Although Baldwin zoning regulations permitted the construction, some residents tried to use the town meeting to stop it.

Norm McKenney is a straight-ahead guy, says Dave Coffin, an executive vice president at the ABC affiliate in Portland, Maines biggest city. He didnt give us everything we wanted. But he was a gentleman throughout the process. He never lost his cool, and he listened to everyone. In the end, the town voted to allow the tower to be built.

McKenney is more willing to talk about less contentious issues hes brought to the towns attention in the last 28 years. The diminutive, bespectacled selectman smiles broadly when he discusses the three volunteer fire stations that serve the sprawling town. Ive been a volunteer firefighter since 1947, he says, proudly noting he was chief of the North Baldwin substation for 15 years. All three stations are the pride of Baldwin and continue to be well-manned, well-equipped, and well-financed.

McKenney is also a paternal figure to many in Baldwin. Having worked for the local school district for 42 years, both as a bus driver and custodian, he has known three generations of residents. I know kids today whose grandparents were on my bus, McKenney proudly notes.

Moreover, McKinney typifies the continuity so important to a town and has inspired a whole generation of town officials. Hes been my mentor for 17 years, says fellow selectman Allan Dolloff. There were times when I thought about giving it (the job of selectman) up, but he talked me into continuing on. He really does have the towns best interests at heart.

These days, McKenneys big interest is being selectman when Baldwin celebrates its bicentennial in 2002. That should be something, McKenney says of the commemoration. For a man who truly is a town father, its likely voters at the 2001 town meeting will approve almost anything McKenney asks for the festivities.