UNION — An issue regarding political signs on public property has escalated to a question of behavior and ethics from elected officials in Union, with raised voices and calls for resignation during a public Select Board meeting and a report to Secretary of State Shenna Bellows.

In a Friday, Nov. 4 interview, Select Board member Martha Johnston-Nash said she regrets her actions, which led to this situation. Residents were already butting heads over local issues, she said, and this has made things more difficult.

She also felt some members of the board reacted inappropriately during the meeting, and though she understood the reasons behind at least one response, she did not agree with it.

Johnston-Nash said she visited the town office on Thursday, Oct. 27 to speak with Town Clerk Sonya Willis. She was concerned about political signs the town removed from public property on Common Road and Route 17 and the campaign report forms town employees said were required to allow the signs to go back up.

Town officials said they were enforcing local ordinances and state laws, and all the signs were replaced once those requirements were met.

Johnston-Nash said she thought the town misinterpreted these items. She hoped her discussion with the town clerk would “prompt a little more digging into the laws.” She should not have done that, she said.

“I was wrong; I was in error,” she said. “Before I got out of there, I had gotten into a shouting match with someone else.” She has since apologized to Willis and assured her something like this would not happen again.

Johnston-Nash did not name anyone involved in this incident and an ongoing investigation has prohibited the sharing of any town office employee statements at this time.

Johnston-Nash read a prepared statement into the record during the Tuesday, Nov. 1 Select Board meeting, apologizing “for allowing my frustration to show.”

In her statement, Johnston-Nash said the town clerk was receptive to her conversation and their discussion was, “brief and friendly.” Then others in the office joined the conversation without asking for clarification, she said, and insisted she comply with the town’s requirements.

She said she did not wish to go into further details during the meeting, but she felt further disagreements could be resolved without affecting any working relationship.

Board Chair Adam Fuller then asked to address her comment before she continued. “If it were up to me, you would not be sitting here,” he said.

Fuller raised his voice as he continued, stating there was never a situation where members of the Select Board should give directions to any town office staff other than the town manager.

The correct forum for addressing concerns like this was in a Select Board meeting, through the town manager or through the Select Board Chair. Fuller said Johnston-Nash knew this. He was not happy about the sign issue either, he said, but the way she handled it was not acceptable.

Anyone else behaving that way in the town office would be banned from the building, he said. As an elected official, Johnston-Nash should be held to a higher standard than a regular citizen, he added, and she should apologize to the town office staff at the earliest possible chance.

“He felt that I needed a good (chewing-out),” Johnston-Nash later said. “He said he didn’t want to do it, but he felt he had to.” She said Fuller was shouting, “much like I was in the town office” during this time.

Fuller confirmed he did not feel he had a choice except to address Johnston-Nash in a public forum both during the Nov. 1 meeting and in a Nov. 3 interview.

“I would have loved to have done that in a closed-door session,” he said Nov. 3. Such executive sessions are mainly for personnel issues, however, and Johnston-Nash is an elected official. He said he would have done the same for any member of the board, and he expected the board to do the same for him.

“We conduct our business in the open,” he said.

He added he did not hold a grudge against Johnston-Nash, and he would like to move on from this incident.

During the meeting, Fuller defended his comments to Lawrence Nash, Johnston-Nash’s husband. Lawrence said Fuller should have dealt with the issue in an executive session, and reprimanding a fellow board member in public “just isn’t ethical, and it’s beneath you.”

Fuller said he considered having an executive session regarding the matter, but he thought it should be done at a public meeting. He understood Lawrence did not agree with him, though.

Town Manager Jay Feyler then clarified legal counsel had advised Fuller against an executive session to address the incident, as elected officials should do everything in public.

Two additional members of the Select Board suggested an alternate solution.

“I think she should resign,” said Wayne Kirkpatrick. He said her behavior was unacceptable, and he would be asked to resign in the same situation.

James Justice agreed with Kirkpatrick’s assessment. “If I was lambasted by (Fuller) like you was lambasted, I would have resigned immediately,” he said, “…what you did was wrong.”

Johnston-Nash said Kirkpatrick and Justice were out of line to make these comments, and said others have since told her they agree with that assessment.

She also disagreed with Fuller’s actions and comments at the meeting, though she understood Fuller wanted to set a high bar of expectations for the Select Board. She added she generally trusted Fuller and he had a good perception about things.

“I felt I needed to take my lumps, I just think it was done the wrong way,” she said.

She wondered if the legal advice he received was accurate, as the town’s code of ethics states issues with board member behavior are supposed to be dealt with by the whole board following an investigation.

The town’s code of ethics states penalties for violations vary according to the position. For elected officials, “the actions taken may range from a letter of reprimand by the chair of the board, to a censure by a majority of the elected board, to a request for resignation from the elected position by a majority of the elected board.”

Johnston-Nash said she was “absolutely not” going to resign.

Union does not have an ordinance regarding the recall of elected officials, so Feyler said a public reprimand was the only action the board could take unless a crime was committed against the municipality.

He said a report had been made to the Secretary of State, however, and some action may come from that.

The Secretary of State report stemmed from Maine statute L.D. 1821, “An Act to Protect Public Election Officials.” This bill makes it a Class C crime to interfere with a public official performing duties related to federal, state or municipal elections. There was voting occurring at the Union Town Office at the time of the incident involving Johnston-Nash.

Johnston-Nash said the issue was about political sign laws, not election laws, but she would face whatever consequence, if any, the Secretary of State’s office might determine.

A recording of the Nov. 1 Select Board meeting can be viewed at: townhallstreams.com/towns/union_me.

The next Select Board meeting is Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 6:30 p.m.