A three-person Rockport Select Board, comprising Alexandra Fogel, Dale Landrith Jr. and acting Chairman William Chapman, heard public testimony April 20 on Articles 3 through 12 of the warrant for the town’s June 8 written ballot. Board member Tom Farley and Chairman Robert Duke have recused themselves until after an April 27 hearing to review their qualifications for office, and did not attend the meeting.

Article 11 would have amended the town charter to allow elected officials to do business with the town if they did so under a competitive bid process. When the time came for Select Board members to vote on placing this article on the ballot, no motion was made because the town had failed to meet the legal requirements for advertising a proposed change to the charter.

Most of the other warrant articles were presented without comment from the assembled residents.

Article 3, which would amend the town’s Land Use Ordinance where it relates to livestock control, received brief comments from townspeople, as did Articles 9 and 10, which call for the adoption of development plans for tax increment financing districts at the elementary school property and in the downtown and harbor areas, respectively. In all three cases all speakers were in favor of the articles as presented.

Resident Helen Shaw, who served on the Rockport Charter Commission, rose in support of Article 11, saying that it was important to encourage the town to do business with companies that are based in Rockport.

“I don’t think we saw what we were doing,” Shaw said.

Board actions called cynical and biased

Gordon Best was the first citizen to speak in opposition to the warrant article. Best began by apologizing for his behavior at the April 12 Select Board meeting at which the charter amendment was presented, but defended his position on the issue.

“The board seems to have a reluctance to police itself,” Best said. “There’s been a cavalier attitude toward the charter.” He said the Select Board had failed to enforce the charter as it is written and that the town was running up legal fees because the board refused to deal with the issue of members who have contracts and receive compensation from the town.

Farley is vice president of Farley & Son, which has mowing contracts and does other business with the town. Duke owns Floor Magic & Tile in Rockport and has done several jobs for the town.

“The answer is a cynical effort to change the charter,” Best said of the challenge to board members. He asked Fogel about an e-mail message she sent to Town Manager Robert Peabody.

“Bob, If we are to play hardball on the Farley situation, I would like to know from our lawyer if there is any resolution that would allow the rest of the board to place high confidence in his service and vote to retain him,” Fogel wrote on March 9.

Fogel responded to Best’s reading of the e-mail by saying that she must have written it, and Chapman said that this discussion was outside of the purpose of the hearing.

“This indicates that, regardless of whether Tom is right or wrong, you want to keep him on the board,” Best said. He said the e-mail indicated bias on the part of Fogel, and said the charter’s references to conflict of interest indicated that she should abstain from the discussion and vote on the article.

“If she has a bias you no longer have a quorum,” Best told the board before returning to his seat. Chapman said the issue of Fogel’s status would be discussed later in the agenda, when it was time for the board to vote on the article.

Amendment was not properly advertised

Former Select Board Chairman Robert Nichols raised questions about the timing with which the charter amendment was drafted and reviewed, and said the hearing had not been properly publicized.

Nichols pointed out that the board is required under state statute to announce a public hearing on a charter amendment at least seven days before that hearing, and to post the text of the proposed amendment, along with a brief explanation, in a newspaper having general circulation in the municipality.

The April 7 advertisement for the April 20 hearing listed all the warrant articles that require a written ballot. The charter amendment article was included in that list, but there was no reference to the language that was being deleted, and the brief explanation required by Title 30-A, subsection 2104 of the Maine Revised Statutes did not appear in the advertisement.

Nichols also asked where the wording for the amendment had come from, since it had not been developed by the board in public and had not come from a petition by townspeople.

Peabody said he had been directed by Duke to draft a proposed amendment and send it to the town’s attorney, William Plouffe. Peabody said later that Duke wanted an amendment to be put on the agenda of a future meeting, that he was in the process of reviewing communications between himself and the board, and that other board members might have contacted him about the issue. On March 29, Chapman sent an e-mail message to Peabody asking him for advice on how to “start whatever process is necessary to alter the charter to resolve the conflict mentioned during the executive session following the last [March 8] meeting.” Chapman wrote that he wanted to be prepared for a vote at the November general election.

Resident Steve Bowen was also a member of the charter commission and told those at the April 20 hearing that he was “adamantly opposed to this amendment.”

“This is not simply a clarification,” Bowen said. “It’s a fundamental change. It seeks to solve a problem we don’t have.” Bowen said he didn’t think Duke and Farley had taken advantage of their positions for personal gain.

“It’s not the awarding of the contract,” he said. “It’s the effect that has on town government, the town manager and employees.” He said if a business owned by a Select Board member failed to perform adequately on a contract it could put the town manager in the position of trying to enforce a contract with the person who signed his employment contract or force other town staff to defend work that was improperly done.

“The board is ultimately in the position to enforce a contract with themselves,” Bowen said.

Charter amendment would only benefit five people

Bowen said he disagreed with the argument that the current charter restricts business owners in a small town from serving the community.

“This only applies to the Select Board,” Bowen said. “There are plenty of ways for people who have a business relationship with the town to serve the town. Come serve on the [Zoning Board of Appeals]. We need people.” He said the existing language was specifically put in place because of conflicts that could arise, whether or not a contract was the result of a competitive bid process.

Charter commission member Tracy Murphy said the effort to change the charter at this time was hasty and gave a bad impression of the board and the town.

“The harder you push this the more guilty you look as a group,” she said. “That’s sad because I don’t want to think badly of any of you.”

“This particular part of the charter applies to five people in the town,” Murphy said. “The part you think has to be changed right this minute applies to the five of you.”

She asked the board to step back and form a committee to review the issue before placing it on the ballot.

“Take your time and let people think about this,” Murphy said.

“For most of our citizens, perception is reality,” said Ralph Field. “Most will not read the charter in any great detail.” He said the charter addressed the issue of public perception. “This new proposal looks like it’s going to punch a hole in it,” he said.

When it came time for the board to vote to set the town meeting warrant, all articles passed unanimously, with the exception of the article regarding the charter amendment.When that item came up, no motion was made and the charter amendment article was not placed on the warrant.

Chapman said that Fogel’s presence on the board was not an issue in the absence of a vote on the charter amendment.

Fees set for use of former school and fields

Prior to opening the hearing, the board set temporary rental fees for the former Rockport Elementary School property and agreed to review those fees in the fall.

Rental for the parking lot only was set at $200 for a profit-making venture and $100 for a nonprofit enterprise. The ballfield fee per team will be $50 for one to six weeks, $75 for one to 12 weeks, and $100 for one to 18 weeks. Use of the gymnasium for up to five days between May 1 and Oct. 31 will be charged at a rate of $250 for a profit-making venture and $125 for a nonprofit enterprise, and would include parking. Renters would have to provide proof of $400,000 in liability insurance and may be asked to pay for a portable toilet.

The town will mow the field and may put up a sign indicating that the filed is a rental property.

Hearing will review board members’ qualifications

On Tuesday, April 27 at 7 p.m. the board comprising Chapman, Fogel and Landrith will hold a hearing and decide whether Farley and Duke will be allowed to complete their elected terms of office.

The next regular meeting of the Rockport Select Board will be held Monday, May 10 at 7 p.m.

Both meetings will take place at the Rockport Opera House and be televised on Channel 22. For more information call the Rockport Town Office at 236-0806.

The Herald Gazette reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.

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