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UPDATED: Hope chair calls on elected officials to resign

Town Administrator receives no disciplinary action, praised by chair
By Daniel Dunkle | Dec 08, 2020

Hope — The Hope Select Board issued a statement Tuesday, Dec. 8, stating that Town Administrator Samantha Mank will not receive any disciplinary action, noting the decision was made based on an extensive investigation by a Portland attorney started in September.

Both of the Select Board's statements are attached below in full.

Select Board Chair Sarah Ann Smith took time during the meeting to speak, she said, not as the chair of the board but as a Hope citizen. During that time, she called on Select Board member Bruce Haffner, Budget Committee member Elinor Goldberg and Planning Board Chair Langley Willauer to resign.

Goldberg and Haffner are elected officials, and Smith noted that there is a recall process now available to townspeople to remove them from office if they fail to resign on their own. She said it would be inappropriate for her as chair of the board to initiate such a process, but added that option was available to any residents who wanted to take action.

Willauer, who she criticized extensively, is appointed as planning board chair.

Willauer, in addition to serving on the planning board, served as the town bookkeeper and was fired by Mank Aug. 7. At the Aug. 11 Select Board meeting he accused Mank of failing to follow state law in the July 14 election. He pointed to differences in the total number of ballots cast on state questions when compared to the totals for those cast on town meeting items, and he said Mank tried to get him to sign a statement that the ballot box was sealed before it had been sealed.

Smith blasted Willauer, blaming him for the controversy that has ensued, and saying he, Goldberg and Haffner were engaged in a conspiracy to get rid of the town administrator.

In the statement based on the attorney’s investigation, Smith said there was no evidence of fraud or attempts to subvert the electoral process. The Select Board previously acknowledged in August there were errors in the ballot counts, but they point to a perfect storm of issues including inexperienced staff and complications as a result of the pandemic.

Select Board members discussed the possibility of looking into the costs of obtaining a court order to open the sealed ballot boxes to investigate further.

Smith said the investigation found what she hoped and expected, and argued the town is fortunate to have Mank as town administrator. She pointed out Mank has no desire to use the small town as a career stepping stone, as is often the case with town managers and administrators.

Smith said Willauer made defamatory, inflammatory and erroneous statements. She described him as hostile, petty, vindictive, bullying and arrogant among other criticisms.

She continued saying she wished there was a way the town could bill Willauer because every taxpayer is paying a price for his actions. She laid the blame for the $15,000 in legal and other fees associated with the investigation at his feet.

She said he did not come forward with his concerns about the election errors until he had been fired, and by then it was too late for the town to do anything. Under state law, she said, election results are final after 30 days.

Smith said she made a Freedom of Access Act request for four town emails between Goldberg, Haffner and Willauer, which indicated they had been communicating with each other about trying to get rid of Mank.

Goldberg sent an email to Bruce Haffner, cc’d to town of Hope Finance Dept. (Willauer) Aug. 8, saying: “...Illegal electoral activity for sure but I don’t really think it skewed the roads vote… but definitely illegal… So, here is the deal, we can make a huge mess of it by not keeping our powder dry and collecting all the dumb things Sam has done and getting ‘witnesses’ to those dumb things, creating affidavits with specific witnesses and proceeding to get rid of Sam in an orderly fashion that cannot be disputed...” The email goes on to call for a conversation about longer term strategy.

In another email Aug. 8, Goldberg says: “Any accountant will not allow what Langley warns against to happen… I would let them walk into the mess and then call them on it along with all the rest of the problems they have created… a board member with signature power might step in if you warn them, but it would be (sic) lot more productive to let them screw themselves..but of course I am at a distance so take my words for what they are, just words...”

The public statement concerning Mank was only one of two on personnel matters the board was dealing with. The other concerned Haffner.

Haffner had opposed the long-term snowplowing contract approved by the Select Board, arguing the town should start its own winter Public Works Department. Before the July 14 town meeting vote on the roads budget, he campaigned for a no vote through emails and a flyer.

He was recorded in a phone conversation with Mike Ames arguing about the snowplowing policies. At one point in the conversation Haffner said, “I’m going to take these guys down.” Ames asked who he meant. Haffner said Town Administrator Samantha Mank, Brian Powers and Road Commissioner John Monroe.

In the statement, the Select Board said this was entirely inappropriate in that Mank is an employee of the town, under the leadership of the SelecBoard. Smith said Mank now is not comfortable being alone with Haffner.

Haffner said in the meeting he would have a response in two weeks.

It was also noted in the meeting that Haffner was excluded from all of the discussions of the Select Board on the investigation because he was directly involved.

The explanation the Select Board has offered for the difference in the numbers of ballots in the July 14 count was to say that some of the residents, who voted by absentee ballot, voted on the state ballots, but did not return ballots on the town meeting items.

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 said in an email, “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...”

In the statement released Tuesday, the board said, "It is important to recall the context including multiple complicating factors. These included but are not limited to a multi-day hospitalization for the Town Administrator in June and tragedy in late June that affected both the Town Clerk and the Town Administrator that involved the deaths of family and/or friends. There were also COVID restrictions as well as late and incomplete guidance from Augusta on the conduct of the elections. Very shortly before the election, the unexpected and extended absence of the Town Clerk just before the election led to staffing shortages. There ensued confusion from running an election with two town employees neither of whom had experience or had been able to receive training on this important function."

The board also is considering changes to avoid problems in the future, including making the town administrator and code officer jobs separate (Mank has been serving in both roles). The town may hire more office staff including a part-time code enforcement officer. Some of those changes would have to be approved at town meeting.

Smith has stated that The Camden Herald’s requests for public documents while investigating stories in Hope are increasing the cost to the town. The Select Board has been consulting its attorney about releasing the documents.

In public comments, Bill Jones of the Budget Committee said the committee had opposed that road item in the town meeting warrant by a unanimous vote, and he said that vote was not noted on the ballot as it usually would be.

He said the totals were not all the same for the 25 town warrant articles and he said that at the least, that was very sloppy. The Select Board had called the three officials criticized in the meeting a “cabal.” Jones said there were cabals on both sides.

“I’m a member of both cabals or neither,” he joked.

Haffner responds:

Hope Select Board member Bruce Haffner sent the following response to statements made in the Dec. 8 Select Board meeting. It has been edited for libel and space.

Who should really resign in Hope?

Last night Sarah Ann Smith, as a citizen, not Chairwoman of the Select board, said Langley Willauer, Ellie Goldberg and I should resign, and that Langley has cost the town $15,000 and that she wished there was a way to get that back from him.

I’m writing this as a citizen, not a member of the board. This started when I said the town should save money by doing our own plowing. We were looking at a huge increase in plowing costs: the last three years cost $116,000 a year and we had a choice -- do it ourselves for $105,000 a year or contract for three years at $211,000 a year. Implicit in my analysis was this question: why pay our Road Commissioner $15,000 a year to rent his dump truck? A big snow plow is just a dump truck with a plow on it.

An even bigger threat is that we get into doing our own summer road work which the Road Commissioner currently does [Comment deleted for potential libel]. Just look at what we paid for excavator rental last summer on Crabtree Road: 129.5 hours at $90.68 an hour or $11,743. If you’re going to rent a car for three weeks do you want to pay the hourly rate or the weekly rate? Hope pays the hourly rate regardless of how big the job is. A quick check of rentals on the internet will get you a weekly rate of $1,640 from Eagle in Waterville ($41 an hour) including delivery and pick-up. With one phone call anyone supervising the Road Commissioner could have saved Hope $6,400 with this simple trick. Here is another problem: when you’re ditching you should likely run two or maybe three dump trucks so you keep the excavator busy. We pay $51.61 an hour (not a weekly rate here either) for one truck and keep the excavator waiting when it’s almost double the cost. Why? Maybe the Road Commissioner only has one big dump truck? The problem is this: the former chair of the board, Brian Powers, thinks this deal with the Road Commissioner is better for the town than bidding jobs out. Costs are out of control because no one seems to care.

We had a historic opportunity to extricate ourselves from the grip of winter road maintenance contractors this year. Interest rates were low, people needed work and trucks were cheap, both because the economy was weak and snowfall last winter was light...

This year the decision was to go with Appleton Ridge Construction for $211,000 a year for three years or do it ourselves for what I estimated would be $104,000 a year (for a three year savings of $321,000!). We would start with no trucks, no drivers, no experience (except our Road Commissioner if he helped) and no garage, although the Hope Corner Fire Station likely has room for one truck. What did our Road Commissioner recommend? He said we should continue contracting. (Note: we later agreed to $195,000 a year, for five years raising our potential savings over that period to $455,000!). Why?

The new plowing contract was hidden in the Town Referendum on July 14. You’d think someone would have thought to have mentioned it was a 68% increase? Or, that needed summer road work would be cut 28% (with more cuts in future years) to help pay for the increase? Warrant #6 read like this: “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)?” Actually, your board hosted a Zoom meeting to discuss all 25 warrants on the ballot. This too was thwarted: the postcard notification about the meeting arrived after the meeting! Imagine this: Washington plows double the miles we do and maintains double the miles of roads we do: they do it themselves for $390,000 a year!

While the board approved warrant 6 by a 3 to 2 vote, the Budget Committee had voted against it, 7 to 0. This degree of dissent was concealed on the warrant like this: “Budget Committee: Recommend No.” Every other warrant ballot listed on our website (2015-2019) shows the actual vote of the Budget Committee. This matters because every time the Budget Committee votes something down, it gets discussed and amended in the Town Hall Meeting. So, I printed up fliers telling about the plowing contract being too big an increase and warning home owners on the ten roads destined for summer road work cuts to vote no on warrant 6. I went to every home on those ten roads and spoke with sixty to seventy people. Almost everyone was surprised and disgusted that they didn’t know about the issue.

The day before the election the Road Commissioner’s only pick in April for the Roads Committee (Brian never assembled it), Mike Ames, called me and secretly recorded our conversation. Why? The Road Commissioner knew I’d be pushing for reforms. Maybe he was even worried about the election. What if warrant 6 failed and too many people voted against it? Should we focus on who said what (I never made the skewer remark) or try to do what is best for Hope? Where are our thinkers and leaders?

Have you heard about the missing ballots? There were five ballots on July 14: two parties had primaries that both had clear front runners, there was a State bond referendum, the town had a ballot for minor offices and we had our warrant referendum in place of a Town Hall Meeting. The roads warrant, #6, was a hot topic on Hope Happenings, a Facebook group. I’d been to 170 homes and left a flier at each. Can anyone believe that while 651 voted on the State Bond Referendum only 499 voted on warrant 6? Appleton did exactly what we did: put their warrants on a ballot. They had 498 vote on the State Bond issue and 496 vote on their warrants (and none were contentious). Where did 152 of our ballots go? Are we to believe 23% of our voters skipped the hottest contest of the year? Was your vote counted? Who knows? Who should we ask for the extra $455,000 we’re spending to plow our roads the next five years?

Bruce Haffner

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