Saturday, May 25, 2013
Got your town report handy?
Didn't think so. Bet you haven't looked at it since town meeting. You checked the budget items, took a look to see who hadn't paid their property taxes, then forgot about it.
Maybe you don't even know your town has a report. Or your city.
Well, it does, and in October the Maine Municipal Association will announce the winners of this year's annual report contest. And lest you think this is not a big deal, keep in mind that out of 486 annual reports across the state (every municipality is required to publish one), 250 entered the contest this year.
"I am deeply impressed with how seriously the clerks take this," said MMA Director Eric Conrad.
The reports are judged 60 percent on content, 20 percent on appearance and 20 percent on how easy they are to understand. There are five population-based categories, with three winners in each.
The whole thing may not seem fair -- communities with more money or a made-for-Down East-style cover art would have an advantage in the contest, right? How's a town with nothing but cornfields and pine trees supposed to compete with color photos of artfully stacked lobster traps or the sun rising over a harbor?
Never fear, the judges are on it.
A nice cover catches the eye, judge Lee Burnett said, but there's got to be follow-through.
Inland towns that have to gut it out with tiny budgets and less ready-made cover scenes do just fine. Conrad said towns from every corner of the state "are in the mix every year."
Judges, who picked the winners last week, have developed some firm likes and dislikes.
Judge Liz Mockler said that 60 percent content category makes or breaks the reports, and the most important feature in that 60 percent is whether the report includes how much money was raised the previous year for the same item.
"How aggravating and useless is a warrant that asks for $200,000 for solid waste disposal, and $350,000 for two miles of road repair without knowing how much you paid for the same expenses last year?" she said.
Burnett isn't impressed when towns front-load the report with boilerplate letters from elected officials, like U.S. senators. The report is, after all, the town and townspeople's. "There's a place for these, but not in the front of the report," Burnett said.
He also likes to see a little quirkiness, something that makes it unique to the town.
For instance, China's report has a full-page find-the-hidden-words-about-China puzzle, a genius move that is a must for anyone who's sat through an hour-long town meeting debate over whether to buy a dump truck.
Some reports are small on frills, but big on readability.
Manchester's doesn't have a cover photo, for instance, but does have a vertical bar down the outside margins of the pages with the section heading, making finding a topic a snap.
Some towns make sure you know what's important. The town council report in Winslow's, for instance, has a headline that trumpets, "Holding the Line — Again!" Vassalboro has a two-page tribute to its town library, including pictures of the library over the years.
And then there are the ever-popular delinquent tax rolls. Most are basic, but some go the extra mile and include a startling amount of detail — let's just say you don't want to be delinquent in Norridgewock.
Mockler and Burnett were both long-time reporters. Burnett now freelances for The Townsman, the MMA's newsletter, and Mockler also writes for the MMA and is a part-time copy editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.
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