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UPDATED: Lawyer letter offered in Hope ballot debate

New employees welcomed, new town policies discussed
By Daniel Dunkle | Feb 10, 2021

Hope — Select Board member Bruce Haffner argued Feb. 9 the town could inspect ballots from the much-debated July 14 election and presented a letter from an attorney to back up his claim.

Haffner submitted a letter from Bangor attorney Joseph Baldacci, sent to Haffner Feb. 9 answering questions about whether ballots are public documents and could be inspected by Haffner in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

“In summary it is legal and appropriate for the Town to honor this freedom of information request by Mr. Haffner with appropriate safeguards for having it done in public, during regular business hours and at his expense if necessary,” Baldacci concluded. In the letter, the attorney states ballots are public documents. (The full letter is attached below).

Chair Sarah Ann Smith said the information she has received in her research, including discussions with the Maine Municipal Association and the town attorney, indicates ballots are confidential and can only be looked at under certain conditions, such as a recount that was requested within the tight deadline for such actions

She also questioned whether Baldacci was an expert in municipal law.

Vice Chair Brian Powers said the select board had already voted to seek answers to this question from PretiFlaherty attorney Kristin Collins. The board voted to spend up to $500 with Collins. Powers said that was going to be the end of the discussion on the July 14 election.

Smith also argued that at some point this question needs to be put to rest.

Haffner said Smith was wrong. He argued the town voting was under a different state statute than the one used to govern state elections.

The issue has been a topic of discussion in Select Board meetings since August when Langley Willauer, who had just been fired as the town bookkeeper, raised questions about why the totals for the numbers of ballots cast (yes, no and blanks) in the town meeting items varied. Smith issued a statement later in August acknowledging errors in the ballot-counting.

Smith said she would give the Baldacci letter to Collins.

Another item on the agenda was a discussion of Planning Board Chair Langley Willauer. The item did not specify that this was a discussion about possibly removing Willauer as chair, but the board has previously discussed removing him from the position.

Smith said there had been complaints about Willauer’s work on the Planning Board with people feeling that board was creating “roadblocks” for people trying to get things approved.

Select Board member Thomas Ingraham opposed removing Willauer and said he would thank him for excellent leadership and the many hours of work he put into reviewing projects for the town. He said the effort to remove Willauer stemmed not from his work with the Planning Board but from his former employment with the town.

Ingraham said Willauer and Town Administrator Samantha Mank could not find a way to trust each other and work together, and Willauer’s firing from the town office was shocking.

Ingraham went on to say that while Smith had blamed Willauer for costing the town the money of hiring an attorney to look into Willauer’s allegations, it was not Willauer’s responsibility. Ingraham said the Select Board voted to hire the attorney after a badly mismanaged election and many of the recommendations that came out of that report from the attorney had originally been suggested by Willauer.

At the Feb. 9 meeting, the board decided to go ahead with some of these improvement plans by asking the town administrator to draft the following new policies:

- Whistleblower Policy

- Wage, Hour, and Accurate Reporting Policy

- Removal of Town Property Policy

- Employee’s Serving on Town Boards/Committees Policy

- Workplace Harassment Policy

In addition, there have been initial discussions of the town creating a separate Code Enforcement Officer position. Currently, Mank serves as both town administrator and code officer.

Ingraham argued that no one involved was 100 percent pure or exonerated or condemned.

Planning Board Vice Chair Harold Mosher said the board needs to give better reasons than he has heard to purge someone from town government. As for running into roadblocks, Mosher said people do not like to run into rules, but the Planning Board has to follow the rules.

The Select Board decided to have a joint meeting with the Planning Board in the near future (possibly April) to discuss concerns and how to best serve the residents.

In other business, the Select Board enthusiastically welcomed and confirmed new town Bookkeeper Tina Murray and new Town Clerk Robert Menas. Menas started Feb. 10 and Murray begins work Feb. 17.

In addition, the board discussed the town’s Roads Advisory Committee and general expectations for the work that committee will do.

Comments by Thomas Ingraham, Hope Select Board member, regarding Langley Willauer

February 9, 2021

I thank the Chair for scheduling this discussion so that I could speak about Langley Willauer’s position on the town Planning Board.

I am opposed to removing Mr. Willauer from the Board. In fact, if anything I want to thank him for his excellent leadership, his attention to detail and the many hours he obviously dedicates to making sure that all development in Hope is done in accordance with the laws and regulations and that growth is appropriately planned. Mr. Willauer is widely respected for his work and provides this service to the town for the princely sum of zero dollars. We are considering removing him from the Planning Board not because of his exemplary service on the Board but because of his former employment with the Town of Hope. It is ironic that one of the factors that led to the entire Select Board enthusiastically confirming his nomination as the town bookkeeper was due to his universally recognized exemplary work on the Planning Board.

As they say, that was then. Clearly things did not work out. In the end, Mr. Willauer and our Town Administrator could not find a way to trust each other or work together and he was summarily terminated. Except for one member of the Select Board, everyone had been told, and we did believe, that everything was going very well. His termination was shocking and Mr. Willauer, a resident of Hope for over 20 years, did not take his firing lightly. In fact as many would know he publicly and energetically defended himself and in detail criticized the management of Town Administrator Samantha Mank.

I know that some have said that Mr. Willauer has cost the town thousands of dollars. This is not correct. The Select Board hired attorney Maria Fox to clear up the confusion created by a rancorous budget process, a badly mismanaged election, and the stunning termination of a long-time resident who most of the Select Board believed was doing good work as a town employee. The Select Board authorized the expenditure, not Langley Willauer.

It is telling that many recommendations from the Fox report are in fact things that Mr. Willauer questioned. It was, for example, Mr. Willauer who challenged the wisdom of the Town Administrator also being the Code Enforcement Officer. The Select Board is currently working to change this.

The Fox report did not recommend that Langley Willauer be reinstated, but neither did it advocate that he be summarily removed from the Planning Board.

Mr. Willauer is presently employed by a neighboring town doing work very similar to his duties in Hope. I’d hazard a guess that he has zero interest in ever again working in the Hope Town Office.

This evening, the Town Administrator has nominated people to fill the town’s two long-open positions. The Select Board is presently finalizing a new contract with Samantha Mank. I was heartened to read that Ms. Mank and Mr. Willauer recently held an extended meeting to plan work on a number of issues coming before the Planning Board. That’s good.

No one is 100% pure in this, no one has been completely exonerated, and no one is completely condemned. We are all of us caught in a very difficult and trying time and yet I trust we are trying to do our best.

To remove Langley Willauer from the Planning Board – something I strenuously object to – would in fact be a perfect illustration of the old adage about “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

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