Still da baddest

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  March 5, 2008

Is your county commissioner on steroids?

For some reason, this question was not addressed in the Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs. But there’s overwhelming evidence to suggest many commissioners are injecting each other in the buttocks with human growth hormone (try really hard not to visualize that), as well as whatever drug it is that makes most of them look like Fred Thompson. Only more elderly, overweight, and not so animated.

Of course, in local politics, animation is an overrated quality. What counts is clout, and county officials have that out of all proportion to their actual powers and their ability to move their facial muscles. (Wiggling jowls don’t count.)

Has anybody checked to see if there was Botox in some of those syringes?

When roused to action, county commissioners are formidable foes. If by “formidable,” one means “obstructive, autocratic, turf-protecting, frothing-at-the-mouth berserkers.” You can almost see Cumberland County Commissioner Esther Clenott dressed up like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Or Franklin County’s Fred Hardy starring in The Bourne Idiocracy.

I said “almost.”

Under normal circumstances, county commissioners rarely become that agitated. They’re content to preside over their fiefdoms, the boundaries of which are reminders of the days when English kings rewarded faithful nobles by granting them large tracts of land in North America.

“My loyal Lord Oxford, I convey to thee all territories from the borders of Count Androscoggin’s properties, northwestward to the edge of the world.”

“Uh, much thanks, Your Majesty, but the world being round, there doesn’t seem to be an edge.”

“Oh, er, right. How about all lands to the curve of the Earth or whatever it is? You figure it out. I’ve got to rush off to settle some quibble between Duke Aroostook and whomever I gave Canada to.”

Thus we have the foundations of modern county government: a glorious tradition of quasi-medieval poppycock, what with its shiretowns and such. It’s kind of like Dungeons & Dragons for aged geeks.

But every now and then, the commissioners remind some unsuspecting sap that this isn’t a game. Governor John Baldacci got thoroughly schooled when they pummeled his plan to have the state take over and consolidate county jails in order to save $7 million next year.

“It’s a bunch of gobbledygook,” Somerset County Commissioner Phil Roy told the Morning Sentinel last summer, shortly after Baldacci unveiled his proposal. “We’re not going to make our taxpayers pay for something they have no benefit of.”

“It looks like the state is using the county as a cash cow,” Peter Baldacci, a Penobscot County commissioner and the governor’s brother (some things are thicker than blood), was quoted as saying in the Bangor Daily News.

“This administration has declared war on rural Maine,” Piscataquis County Commissioner Tom Lizotte declared in the same paper.

“Counties are very much in danger,” said Knox County Commissioner Anne Beebe-Center in an article in Down East magazine.

The reason these assorted commissioners got so incensed over Baldacci’s tentative effort to bring some order to the state’s muddled corrections system is because they know that once somebody starts chipping away at the redundancies in county government, it’s only a matter of time before taxpayers notice that almost all county services are redundant or could be performed more efficiently elsewhere. Then, it might occur to the public that they’re paying a lot of money to administer something that doesn’t need administering. By my conservative estimate, eliminating the county bureaucracy (commissioners, administrators, treasurers, sheriffs, probate judges, clerks, and jerks) would lower property tax bills by 10 to 12 percent statewide.

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