Salt ’n Spar

Wiscasset’s 1981 marathon town meeting

Tue, 03/19/2024 - 8:45am

    Friday, the 13th in March 1981 was a lucky day for some of the candidates running for Wiscasset town office and a not so lucky day for the others who lost. Take it from me it was actually one of the more interesting contests as far as town elections go. There were 25 Wiscasseters on the ballot and several more campaigning as write-in candidates. Eight candidates, all men by the way, were running for one of three seats on the selectboard. Back then voters chose a First, Second and Third selectman with the First Selectman serving as chairman.

    There was no town manager, so the responsibility of running the town fell on the shoulders of the selectboard who also did all of the property tax assessing and served as overseers of the poor. Wiscasset had a town meeting form of government which gave voters the opportunity to voice their support, or opposition as far as how the town’s selectboard was spending the community’s tax dollars. Most of the tax revenues, about 90%, came from the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant. Spending proposals were sometimes debated on the floor for 45 minutes, or longer; although when the final vote was taken the articles were nearly always overwhelmingly passed. Ah, for the good old days ... the times when “Maine’s Prettiest Village” was flushed with lots of money and had the lowest property taxes in the state of Maine.

    Well, all good things come to an end; Maine Yankee shut down in 1997 and seven years later Wiscasseters went to the polls and voted to do away with their annual town meeting in favor of referendum voting on the town budget, the change taking effect in June 2004. All of this comes to mind because Wiscasset’s annual town meeting was usually held on the second or third Saturday in March. Two to three hundred civic-minded residents would make their way to the high school, or middle school gymnasium to take part. The number would gradually dwindle down as people grew tired and headed for the exits.

    I was among the 200 or so voters present for Wiscasset’s 1981 annual town meeting. That wasn’t really a lot of people when you consider five months earlier Wiscasset had had a record turnout of 1,466 voters for the Reagan/Carter presidential election. Anyway, the thing I remember most about the 1981 town meeting is that it went on for almost eight hours; seven hours and 45 minutes from start to finish, a marathon.  I remember sitting there as the debates droned on and on wondering if we’d ever get through the 53 articles on the warrant. One of most controversial items of the budget were proposed pay raises for town employees that prompted 40 minutes of discussion. Then there was the 45 minutes of debate on the proposed $127,700 police budget. Both items were eventually passed and by near unanimous votes. At this same town meeting $150,000 was raised to construct a bituminous sidewalk on Gardiner Road from Route One to the high school. The total 1981-82 town budget passed by voters, excluding the operation of the schools came to $2.8 million which included $40,500 for the fire department and $22,500 for the ambulance service. What’s kind of surprising is over 800 voters turned out at the polls the day before for the annual town election. The closest race was for road commissioner, now an appointed position, as are the positions of town clerk, treasurer, tax collector and excise tax collector.

    Actually, there used to be two annual town meetings here in Wiscasset, one to consider the town budget in March, followed by a second one in June to consider the school budget. Even fewer voters turned out for the June town meeting that was held in the cafeteria of the Middle School on Federal Street.  If you’re curious, the 1981-82 school budget for Wiscasset’s three schools was $2.3 million. At that same town meeting voters agreed to increase the starting salary for a first year teacher to $11,213. Wiscasset’s municipal and school budgets are now considered together around the end of June, which is a much better way of carrying out this business.

    Needless to say, the marathon 1981 Wiscasset town meeting was the longest meeting I ever covered. Less than 50 people were left in the gym when the meeting mercifully came to its end. Most of Wiscasset’s annual town meetings started at 10 and were over by 3:30. It was always a long day for me because after I got home, I’d spend a couple hours writing up the story for the newspaper. The following day, I’d work another two or three hours in the darkroom developing the film and printing the pictures to go with the town meeting story. Because I’m feeling nostalgic and this is the 43rd anniversary of that marathon town meeting, I’ve included a few of pictures I took that day. Truth be told, I sometimes miss the tradition of the annual town meeting. There is something to be said about neighbors gathering together to discuss how best to spend their tax dollars. Wiscasset had a time-honored tradition of letting discussion of an article go on, and on, and on, as long as it took for everyone to have their say.

    Phil Di Vece earned a B.A. in journalism studies from Colorado State University and an M.A. in journalism at the University of South Florida. He is the author of three Wiscasset books and is a frequent news contributor to the Boothbay Register-Wiscasset Newspaper. He resides in Wiscasset. You can contact him at