Nominations sought for Bridgton’s first ‘Spirit of America’ award

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

At the urging of Selectman Greg Watkins, Bridgton Selectmen have decided to participate in the national Spirit of America Foundation Tribute, by which a local person or group is honored for outstanding community service.

The public is invited to visit the town website, or come into the Municipal Complex to nominate the honoree, who will be recognized at the June 15 Town Meeting, as well as at a fall event with other participating Cumberland County towns. The deadline is tight; nomination forms must be turned in by Thursday, May 19.

Selectmen have yet to decide how the winner will be chosen, either by the board itself or by an outside committee, which could include selectmen, town staff or community members.

Watkins drew up the guidelines after the idea was discussed at two previous board meetings. He said he realized the timeline is tight, but that it would be most appropriate to honor the person or group at the annual Town Meeting.

The selection criteria states that the honoree has demonstrated “continuing service and dedication to the town,” based on their volunteerism impact, longevity and compassion, among other attributes.

At the earlier board meetings, there was a good deal of debate before the board decided to go ahead with the program.

“It’s a very difficult thing to do to say one person is doing so much more than someone else in the community,” Selectman Chairman Bernie King said when Watkins suggested the idea at the board’s April 12 meeting. “When you start singling out one person, someone’s going to get a bloody nose.”

Watkins cited a letter sent to the town by the Maine chapter of the foundation, citing the many Maine towns listed as past participants in the program.

“If we don’t do it, are we saying that nobody is” worthy of the award, Watkins asked. “This is about the town recognizing someone who has gone above and beyond, and certainly there are many” in town, he added.

“I can understand…that it may be difficult to justify one to another,” Watkins acknowledged. At the April 26 meeting, Watkins refined his stance on the selection process, saying he’d done some checking and found that at least one other town accepts open nominations from the public. He suggested that the town could post information explaining what the award is about, on the town’s website and elsewhere, and encourage residents to make their nominations.

He added that according to the foundation’s guidelines, it doesn’t have to be one person who is selected; it could be an organization or a project. Each town can decide their own criteria as to who is honored and what criteria are used to guide the nomination process and final selection.

Selectman Bob McHatton was opposed to having the town sponsor the tribute, saying it’s better to leave it up to local organizations like the Bridgton Lions Club and the Bridgton Lake Region Rotary Club to honor residents for outstanding local service.

“It’s great that others do it, but I am not in favor of doing it from the Board of Selectmen,” McHatton said.

The informal vote to go ahead was 3-2, with Selectmen Paul Hoyt, Ken Murphy and Watkins in favor.

“This award seems to be picked up by quite a few municipalities around the state, and it would be a good thing for Bridgton to be involved,” Watkins said.

The person or group selected is honored at a fall event that includes all award winners throughout Cumberland County. The foundation was created in 1991, and to date there has been six county-wide Spirit of America events hosted by county officials in Maine — in Androscoggin, Kennebec, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Somerset and Waldo Counties. This fall is the first event for Cumberland County.

Murphy was particularly positive about having the town sponsor the annual tribute.

“When I was chosen as the Chamber Volunteer of the Year in 2012, I was very honored,” Murphy said at the April 12 meeting. He did, however, agree that the Board of Selectmen should not be the ones to decide who is chosen, and suggested that town employees could be involved.

Hoyt also favored participation. “I would like to see us do it,” he said, adding that he didn’t think any person nominated would hold a grudge if they weren’t selected. “Anytime we can take a moment” and recognize outstanding community service, the town should do it, he said.

King pointed out that the town did not dedicate the Annual Report last year to any person or organization, and has no plans to include a dedication in this year’s report, which is now being finalized for printing. The year before last year, the report was dedicated to all veterans.

But Watkins said the program should be successful, as long as it is left up to residents to decide.

“The townspeople can nominate people, and let the best win,” he said.

This isn’t the first time the board has wrangled with the idea of recognizing someone for outstanding community service. The issue comes up whenever the board discusses the annual Volunteer Picnic. The informal gathering was at first intended for members of board-appointed committees, but then expanded to include town employees. Selectmen were disappointed by the low attendance at the picnic last year, and discussed whether attendance might be boosted by singling out some persons for special recognition.

So far, however, the board has opted not to give out any awards at the annual gathering, and instead is looking into holding the summer picnic at a more convenient day and time.

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