The world is little aware that Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of Maine, shares a kinship with the United Kingdom. For instance, we are both islands within swimming distance of our respective continents. We both share an unhappy marriage with our mainland neighbors; in the case of the U.K.—the European Union; for Peaks Island, it’s that irksome “foodie” city across the bay, Portland. Most importantly, we have both voted to leave our respective partners. Only it hasn’t happened yet. Breaking up is hard to do.
Let’s go back to a winter evening in 1895 when residents on our island met at the Trefethan Evergreen Improvement Association clubhouse. I must say that in reading an account from that long ago gathering, the arguments for (and against) secession from Portland were compelling. I must also highlight that “Mr. Brackett led off the meeting with a whistling demonstration that was very well received.”
Here’s a thought: The U.K. and the European Union would do well to emulate this practice. Not that whistling is the end all. It could be, say, yodeling, or perhaps a fashion show featuring bell-bottoms or shirts with puffy collars, something to set the mood for serious negotiations.
After the whistling, an islander arose and demanded that Peaks Island secede from Portland. He had totaled the tax bill from Peaks Island homeowners and compared it to the services we received in return. “In truth,” he said, “Peaks is receiving a pittance for our taxes.” The gap was “SHOCKING! WE MUST SECEDE!” Then, another gentleman waved his own paper and said, “Not so fast. My numbers say that we receive far more from Portland in services than we pay. I say, STAY!” After much discussion, the motion was tabled for further study…until the early 1990’s. That’s when house revaluations sent tax bills sky-rocketing for Peaks Island residents. Many people couldn’t afford their tax bill and worried they might need to sell their home and move off the island.
This time, our meeting in the Public Safety Building did not begin with a whistling demonstration. No, the mood was decidedly tense and blustery. Arguments were made for and against establishing our own town. Many islanders were angry with the jump in taxes. On the other divide were those who emphasized that our taxes supported our island school, police and emergency services, and trash collection. A straw vote was held. Peaks voted to secede.
That’s when things got complicated. You see, seceding is no simple matter (See: American Civil War). In Maine, it’s up to the state legislature to pass a bill allowing one portion of a town to secede from another. It’s a high bar. The bill was voted down, but that was not the end of it. In 1995, the 230 residents of Long Island (within a stone’s throw of Peaks) voted overwhelmingly to secede from Portland. With the entire island on board, the state legislature bill enabling secession passed.
A few years later, based on Long Island’s success, secession fever hit Peaks Island once more. Another series of acrimonious meetings were held. I know, because I favored secession. My wife, Sandi, was against secession. Forming our own town made perfect sense to me. I favored local control. As a rural island, we have very little in common with Portland. Other towns in Maine of similar size to Peaks muddle along just fine with a budget based on the tax dollars we now sent to Portland. Sandi was skeptical She made the point that if we became our own town, the very people sitting in our meeting hall would be running Peaks Island.
I looked around. Hmm, she had a point there. “Perhaps,” I suggested, trying to win her vote, “why stop at forming our own town? Why not become our own country? It could be a monarchy, and you, Sandi, could be queen.” Sandi was not amused.
As the time for our island vote neared, some people stopped talking to each other. Accusations flew. People were accused of fudging the numbers or outright lying. By a close margin, islanders supported secession. Again, a bill was sent to the state legislature. Again, the bill failed. And in retrospect I have to admit that remaining part of Portland has been okay. We have someone across the waters to blame for most everything that irritates us.
This is why I say to the United Kingdom, step back and take a deep breath and vote again. You might consider a nationwide whistling contest. Or better yet, do something less controversial like voting for which beer in the United Kingdom is truly the best. That should be easy. Or put the whole business on hold like we did on Peaks Island in 1895. It’s a delaying tactic, sure, but it put the decision on the back-burner for more than 100 years. Now wouldn’t that be nice?
Dr. Chuck Radis
Enjoy this? Check out chapter 1 of Dr. Chuck’s book Go By Boat here