Allen conflict of interest snafu resurfaces

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

An angry South Bridgton resident blasted Bridgton’s Board of Selectmen Tuesday, demanding to know why Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz wasn’t fired for not telling the board about an Avesta Housing, Inc.-related conflict of interest involving Neal Allen, a regional planner who served on the selection committee that recommended hiring Anne Krieg.

William Barnes was also angry, he said, that his phone calls weren’t returned by several selectmen and The Bridgton News — calls that were made after he read an article published two weeks ago about the issue.

“I’m not satisfied with the article and all the answers,” he said. “My goal was to ask selectmen to have (Berkowitz) fired.” He said he had considered starting a petition to that effect.

Berkowitz has said he erred in not telling the board that Allen, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, was also an Avesta Housing, Inc. board executive. Selectmen expressed their strong disappointment at their last meeting that Berkowitz did not inform them of Allen’s two hats, given the high-profile, controversial nature of public debate over the town’s relationship with the affordable housing agency.

“I still think the whole Avesta thing smells like a fish market,” Barnes said. He told board members they had not fulfilled their “oath of office as a representative of the people” by not giving full disclosure in public of any discussions they may have had with Berkowitz over the matter. Barnes erroneously believed that Berkowitz’s lack of disclosure about Allen’s potential to have a conflict of interest was discussed in an executive session following the last meeting, until Selectman Woody Woodward told him that was not the case.

“I know you think that things should have been brought out in public. I believe they were brought out in public,” Woodward said. As for matters discussed in executive session — had they in fact had such a conversation, which they didn’t — Woodward said, that by law, such matters must be kept confidential.

Barnes wanted to know if Berkowitz had done something illegal, he said, adding that in his calls to individual selectmen and Berkowitz, all involved said that nothing illegal occurred.

Selectman Bob McHatton said he studied “the situation,” and concluded “the only thing (Berkowitz) did wrong was not telling the board” that Allen served on Avesta’s board of directors. As for Krieg’s hiring for the position of Director of Planning, Economic and Community Development, McHatton said, “Things went through an excellent process.”

A lapse in judgment, furthermore, is “not any reason to terminate a town manager,” McHatton said.

Barnes told the board that, nevertheless, “I have a right under the First Amendment to Freedom of Speech.”

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