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Timeline of Hope controversy

Select Board plans statement Tuesday; Timeline of events in controversy included
By Daniel Dunkle | Dec 05, 2020
Source: File photo Town Administrator Samantha Mank.

Hope — Newly released documents from the town of Hope show that the attorney hired to conduct an investigation for the town was looking into a personnel matter concerning Town Administrator Samantha Mank.

The town hired Portland attorney Maria Fox to "conduct an independent inquiry regarding: personnel matter involving the Town Administrator," according to a contract document obtained by The Camden Herald through a formal Freedom of Access Act request.

Mank said in an email the town would not release the report from the attorney, even in a redacted form.

"The report will not be edited, redacted, or released because it is a confidential personnel document and therefore may not be shared in part or in whole under Maine law," she said. "However, the Select Board are working with the Town Attorney regarding making a public statement about the completed inquiry report."

The town paid Fox $13,255.

The Select Board agenda for its meeting Tuesday, Dec. 8, at 6:30 p.m. includes an item: "Select Board statement regarding personnel matter." The meeting will be held online. See bottom of story for instructions on how to participate.

Timeline

Taking a look at the timeline of events over the past year in Hope shows how a simple disagreement over how to handle snowplowing contracts developed into a significant rift between Select Board members. In addition, it shows friction and turnover among staff in the Town Office and questions raised about errors made in vote counts from the July 14 election.

We looked at public documents including resignation letters, the Town Report, and Select Board meeting minutes in compiling this timeline.

Jan. 17, 2020: Town Clerk Chelsea Summers left to take a job as assistant town administrator in South Thomaston.

Jan. 21, 2020: Alexenia "Allie" Payor was hired as the Hope town clerk. She replaced her sister, Chelsea Summers, in the position. Questioned Nov. 18 about whether Payor and Summers are related to Town Administrator Samantha Mank, Select Board Chair Sarah Ann Smith said, “Chelsea and Allie's Uncle, with whom they have little/no contact, used to be married to Samantha's ex-husband's sister. Sam has very limited contact with that ex-sister-in-law. That means they are NOT related to Samantha.”

Feb. 25: The Select Board considered bids for snowplowing : 1.) Esancy Enterprise, LLC bid $292,950/yr. for 3 years. 2.) Wayne’s Landscaping and Excavation bid $134,106/yr. for 3 years. Road Commissioner John Monroe abstained due to his work and friendship with Jacob Esancy. Select Board member Sarah Ann Smith said Esancy had been doing a good job for the town, but the board wanted to see the costs lowered. The issue was put back out to bid.

Feb. 28: Langley Willauer was hired as the town bookkeeper. In a letter in the Town Report, Select Board member Brian Powers stated: “Mary Tolles, our 16-year town bookkeeper, has sadly-for-us retired, but her replacement, Langley Willauer, has stepped in nicely.” Willauer was also listed in the Town Report as registrar of voters. He still serves as Planning Board chair, which is an appointed position.

April 7: Select Board held a closed-door executive session to discuss labor contracts and proposals for winter maintenance and snowplowing.

April 14: Select Board discussion of snowplowing bids gets heated. Road Commissioner “John Monroe said that he typically has been trying to stay out of this discussion because of a conflict of interest. However, he is wondering what is happening here. Are the selectmen attempting to negotiate or are they going to award the bid?” meeting minutes state. “(Select Board member) Bruce (Haffner) stated back when Jake made his first bid, that Jake sat down with John Monroe and Dick Crabtree and they helped him with his bid. Both John and Dick denied having any input on Jake’s bid.”

April 28: Select Board member Bruce Haffner gives a PowerPoint presentation proposing the town create its own winter public works department, hiring staff and paying for plows. Select Board members argue there is not time for that kind of a process before the coming winter. With costs of bids too high, they opt to reject present bids and put out another request for proposal.

May 12: Haffner continued to push the Select Board to create a town Public Works Department, suggesting buying trucks. Monroe expressed concern that this was later than usual in the year for the town still not to have the plan settled for snowplowing.

June 2: After a heated discussion of the snow removal contract, it was voted 3-1, with Haffner opposed, to enter a contract with Appleton Ridge Construction for three years. There had been concern expressed that a multi-year contract would mean not pursuing the Public Works option, however, due to the investment needed for the contractor hired to plow, one and two-year contracts were less likely. Smith argued the town could not continue to put off the snow removal decision. She also argued the board could not decide to create a Public Works department that night. “Mike Ames spoke up and told the Selectmen that they were foolish and that they are an embarrassment for the Town of Hope. He went on to say that there is a contractor sitting right here listening to you. Pretty soon nobody is going to want to do work with you,” according to Select Board minutes.

June 9: Haffner pushed for having an in-person town meeting, even if it was limited due to the pandemic, rather than going with a secret ballot process. The Select Board disagreed however, and the process was to be by secret ballot in July.

June 16: Select Board held another closed-door meeting with no explanation in the minutes for whether it was about personnel, legal or negotiations. Following the meeting, it voted to approve a five-year contract for the snowplowing rather than the previously decided three years ($976,500 over five years; $195,300/yr.). Haffner opposed this and tried to get snowplowing to be a separate item on the town meeting warrant, but did not prevail.

June 30: Town Attorney Bill Kelly instructed the Select Board on its duties and responsibilities under the law. The Select Board voted to hold an informational meeting July 9 about the upcoming town meeting election.

Smith had a clarification for this item: The Select Board first voted to hold an informational meeting on July 2nd with the possibility of a second one on the 9th--there had been some discussion about which day it would be. It wasn't until the poorly-attended July 2nd meeting that we decided to go ahead and have a second informational session on July 9th and to mail postcards to alert folks since the messages posted on the town website and facebook page to attend the July 2nd meeting clearly hadn't reached enough people.

July 14: Residents vote by secret ballot on the town meeting items including Article 6: “Shall the Town raise and appropriate the sum of $528,895 for the maintenance and repairs of the Town Roads (balance of the Public Works Cost Center)?” Selectmen had voted 3-2 on the item and the Budget Committee had recommended a no vote. This item passed 255-213 with 31 blank ballots. The totals of ballots for town questions varied with some adding up to 499 and some over 500. On the bond issue questions, however, the total ballots cast in the same election totaled 651.

Smith added this clarification: The state bond issues were on printed ballots from the state. ...Many times, voters will complete a state ballot and not take the time to vote on town issues which are on a separate ballot sheet. That means there are usually different totals of ballots for state issues and for town issues -- two separate pieces of paper. One needs to compare apples to apples, not oranges. The way this is written it makes it look as if there is a discrepancy of 151 or so votes. That is not the case. There were errors in the manual tallying of the town ballots/referendum (which took the place of an annual Town Meeting) as we have previously reported in public...

Also July 14: Dick Crabtree scolded the Select Board for the lack of decorum in the bidding process on snow plows. There was much discussion and controversy over Bruce Haffner having distributed flyers and emails campaigning against the road budget including money for contracts signed by the entire board. It was also questioned whether it was legal or ethical for him to do this and to use a database from his work with the school as Chess Club coach to acquire email contacts for this activity.

Aug. 7: Samantha Mank fired Langley Willauer from his positions as bookkeeper, registrar of voters, deputy town clerk, and deputy tax collector. He was given a letter of separation, noting that he was in his six-month probationary period as a new employee and unsatisfactorily completed that probation. The probationary period is applied to all town staff, according to the letter. Mank said Dec. 4 in an email: “The Town hired Ms. Tolles after Mr. Willauer’s dismissal to bring the Town’s financial records up to date and to assist the accounting firm RKO with the annual audit preparations.”

Aug. 11: Willauer read a lengthy statement to the select board about his firing and criticized Mank. He stated: “Samantha Mank ran our most recent election and did NOT do so consistent with State Election Laws, including...*Samantha asked me to sign a statement saying the State ballot boxes were sealed before they were sealed. I politely said, ‘it says here we’re supposed to seal, so we need to do that. Samantha pressured me twice to sign. She then sealed the ballot box and I signed. On July 15, Samantha was apparently alone with the ballots and the tally sheets for two hours before posting the results to the website and going home. Are the Board members aware that for the 25 ballot questions on the July 14 election, the vote tally for each question varied between 463 and 548 when by Maine Law every tally must be equal.”

Aug. 25: The Select Board issues a public statement acknowledging errors in the vote counts for town meeting items. “...The total of the Yes, No, and Blank tallies added up to different numbers when, in fact, they should have been a consistent total for the total number of ballots.” Town officials noted that they were not able to have the ballots for town items printed by the special printers so they could be counted by the machines. The town had to print its own ballots and hand count them. The inexperience of the town bookkeeper and clerk and the challenges created by the pandemic were also cited.

Sept. 4: A petition in town called for creating a recall process for removing a Select Board member.

Sept. 8: During the Select Board meeting, a recording of Haffner speaking on the phone to Mike Ames, recorded without Haffner knowing it, was read into the record. Amy Powers, wife of Select Board Vice Chair Brian Powers, had released the recording on Facebook previously. At one point in the conversation, Haffner states, “The deck was stacked against me from the beginning, and I’m going to take these guys down.” Ames asks who he means. Haffner says Town Administrator Samantha Mank, Brian Powers and Road Commissioner John Monroe. Most of the phone conversation is an argument about how to handle snow plowing and roadwork in the town. Monroe told Bruce Haffner at the meeting he should resign.

Sept. 15: The town of Hope hires Portland Attorney Maria Fox to conduct an independent inquiry regarding a personnel matter involving Town Administrator Samantha Mank at a rate of $275 per hour.

Sept. 20: Town Clerk Alexenia Payor verbally announces her resignation to Mank.

Sept. 28: Payor submits a brief letter of resignation, stating, “I will provide a statement detailing my resignation upon request.”

Oct. 5: Payor submits a lengthy statement to Mank explaining her resignation. She praises Mank in this statement and complains about Willauer contacting her with questions, texting and making demands for information. She also complains about others in the community coming to the town office with demands and concerns over the controversy. Smith said this longer letter was discussed in a closed-door executive session.

Nov. 3: Voters approve the recall petition item, creating a recall process.

Nov. 5: The Select Board held two closed-door sessions, one on personnel and one on legal issues.

Nov. 9: The Select Board held a closed-door meeting on personnel issues.

Nov. 10: Creation of a town Roads Advisory Committee was approved. Its Ex-officio members are: Bruce Haffner, Thom Ingraham, and John Monroe; other members are: Doug Merrill, Patrick McGrath, Todd Snyder, Bill Pearse Jr., Mike Ames, Rick Bresnahan, Ed Crowley, Chris Pinchbeck, Jim Guerra and Ellie Goldberg.

Nov. 17: The Select Board held two closed-door meetings, one for personnel issues and one for legal issues.

Nov. 19: The town releases documents showing that Fox was paid $13,255 for 48 hours of work, much of it reviewing documents and interviewing witnesses. Town officials said the investigation was ongoing.

Nov. 25: The Select Board held a closed-door meeting for personnel.

Dec. 1: The Select Board held a closed-door meeting for a personnel matter with the town attorney.

Dec. 7: The agenda posted on the website for the Select Board meeting includes a closed-door session for a personnel matter. Meeting starts at 5 p.m.

Hope Select Board Meetings Online:

The town website notes: "Due to the increasing cases of Covid-19 in the Midcoast and Knox County area, and out of an abundance of caution, the public may not attend meetings in person at this time."

If you would like to PARTICPATE in the meeting, then please attend via Zoom.

This meeting may be attended via Zoom: https://zoom.us/j/5851802397

Meeting ID: 585 180 2397

If you would like to WATCH the meeting, then please attend via livestream.

This meeting may be livestreamed: https://townhallstreams.com/towns/hope_me

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Crawford L Robinson | Dec 05, 2020 19:39

Hopeless in Hope?



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