We in Maine have come over the last few years to see our collection of natural and historical attributes — something we have come to call “quality of place” — as our new avenue for economic development.

These attributes, the argument goes — our rocky coast, historic villages, quaint, livable communities — represent our most important asset, our new competitive advantage. We must exploit them to attract business and people to Maine and thus grow our economy.

I find these arguments compelling and agree that we must build our development policies upon them. But I think they fall short when they limit “quality of place” to environmental, physical and historical attributes.

One of Maine’s most important qualities, I believe, is our tradition of easy involvement in community governance. I admire most local elected officials and the volunteers who serve on planning, zoning, conservation, appeals, school and the other voluntary boards that play such an important role in making the public policy decisions that shape the character of our communities.

These volunteers are the scientists and lab workers in our experiment in democracy. They give truth to the ideal of self-rule, and the quality of their work will determine whether government based on that ideal can, as Lincoln said, “long endure.”

In a world where much of the public media has found that the best way to sell advertising is to bash government — either as a bastion for the lazy and incompetent or as a cover for crony capitalism — it is doubly important that our local officials strive to do their usually thankless and always underpaid jobs with both honesty and intelligence.

Where Lagrange put history at the fulcrum of memory and documentation, I think we could easily substitute local public policy.

Too often, what passes for common sense — something we all accept as self-evidently true — is the result not of crisp and up-to-the-minute analysis but conventional wisdom — imperfectly remembered stories based on facts that may once have been true but are now either untrue or unrelated to the point at hand.

Citizen volunteers can’t all be experts in the dizzying array of matters that come before them, but they can be open-minded and try to resist jumping to conclusions they were predisposed to accept from the beginning. They must, in effect, be local historians, seeking to find the “truth” about their communities as they exist today rather than simply perpetuating myths whose “lessons” often impede the learning we must all embrace if we are to preserve this special place called Maine as it encounters the global realities of the 21st century.

I spoke recently to a school administrator about a set of demographic projections. “Thanks very much,” he said, “there are quite a few people eagerly awaiting these numbers.”

“Oh good,” I said, “people are concerned about managing the school system.”

“No,” he replied, “they’re sniffing around the elementary school, hoping to take it over for a new town hall.”

While a new town hall may or may not be the best use of what is today an elementary school, the idea that documentation gathered to shed light on a variety of policy decisions would be accepted if it confirmed a certain predetermined narrative, and ignored if it did not, is discouraging. It simply reinforces the cynical conclusion that “the fix is in” and that government “of the people, by the people, for the people” may in fact “perish from the Earth.”

We need to do better; we need to think long, hard and honestly about schools and town halls and open space and roads and solid waste and zoning and budgets and all the mundane public decisions that when taken as a whole determine what we so blithely accept as “quality of place.”

The external quality we see depends more and more on the internal quality of our collective thinking.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]