Committee ‘went beyond authority’

By Lisa Williams Ackley and Gail Geraghty

Staff Writers

Members of the Bridgton Comprehensive Plan Committee members on Monday refused to back down after selectmen and the town manager accused them of overstepping their authority by taking an amendment request directly to the planning board before their work on updating the plan is even complete.

The decision set the stage for a showdown on the dispute at the selectmen’s next meeting on March 13.

Even knowing they might not be reappointed when the time came, the committee voted unanimously not to rescind their recommendation that the planning board consider amending the Site Plan Review Ordinance to require developers of mixed use property on Main Street of 20,000 square feet or more to reserve the ground floor for commercial use only, retroactive to Feb. 20, 2012.

‘Slap in the face’

Emotions ran high in the discussion before the vote, as several members expressed their displeasure and surprise that selectmen, after meeting in an emergency executive session, were calling them to task for what they believed they had every right to do, as a committee working on town planning issues.

“This caught me unaware. It seemed like a real slap in the face,” said committee member Dick Danis. “I guess we did something wrong, because we got slapped.”

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said Monday the Comprehensive Plan Committee is an appointed committee whose charge is to make recommendations only to the Board of Selectmen and not to other elected boards or appointed committees. He cited the committee’s written charge, dated March 2011, which under its sunset provision states that “the Committee shall recommend to the Selectmen” a final version of the updated plan, and go out of existence after voters act on it at town meeting.

He said the “advisory-to-selectmen only” nature of appointed committees was made clear last fall, when selectmen held a meeting Sept. 27 to inform appointed committee members how to conduct meetings as well as how to conduct themselves. Berkowitz said the main purpose of any appointed town committee is to advise the selectmen with recommendations.

‘They had no authority’

The town manager said Monday it is not the specific recommendation that he questions, but the fact that they did something they had no authority, whatsoever, to do, in the first place.

“They went beyond their authority,” Berkowitz told The Bridgton News March 5, of the CPC members going to the Feb. 28 planning board meeting with their recommendation. “The fact is they had no authority to do that,” the town manager said.

Berkowitz said he was speaking on behalf of the Bridgton Board of Selectmen, following a closed-door executive session Feb. 29 at which the Comprehensive Plan issue was discussed.

“They ended up bypassing the Board of Selectmen, under the pretense they were trying to implement the Comprehensive Plan of 2004,” Berkowitz said. “The selectmen appointed the Comprehensive Plan Committee, and the selectmen established the charge (to the CPC) — which was to update the 2004 Comprehensive Plan so it could be implemented.”

Selectmen Chairman Art Triglione said Monday he called Comprehensive Plan Committee Chairman Bob Wiser the day after the committee made their recommendation to the planning board, telling him he “strongly recommended” they rescind it. Selectmen and Berkowitz, who were meeting on the same night, had no idea the recommendation was going to be made, he said.

“We don’t have any problem with the change they’re suggesting, and I don’t think it was done maliciously. But they should have come to us first,” Triglione said. “The board of selectmen have the ultimate decision-making power, and they mis-stepped it.” He added that Selectman Doug Taft, who was not present at the executive session, disagrees with the view held by the other four members of the board.

Triglione said he did not tell Wiser outright that members of the committee would not be reappointed, or that the committee would be dissolved, as a result of their actions. “I did not say they would not be reappointed, I said that everything would be under consideration” when the board meets on March 13.

Triglione said he hoped the dispute doesn’t get drawn out, but can be resolved through an open debate. “I know they have the best interests of Bridgton at heart.” But he said he watched the Comprehensive Plan Committee’s meeting live on Lake Region Television, and felt that some of the comments made were less than respectful of the board of selectmen.

“The only criticism I have is that maybe they should look at us with the respect that we give them. It’s a two-way street. It’s the first time in my 12-year career as a public official that I’ve been booed,” said Triglione.

‘What charge?’

At Monday’s meeting, Wiser briefed the committee on what selectmen told him Feb. 28 about the committee’s charge as stated in a March 2011 document. While Wiser was meeting with selectmen, the CPC was meeting in another room at the municipal complex.

“What charge?” asked member Fred Packard, also a member of the Bridgton Planning Board who is working on the CPC recommendation. Packard and others said their “charge” has been “murky,” which was one reason why the committee had begun to rewrite it.

That prompted member Glen “Bear” Zaidman — who initiated the idea to go to the planning board with the amendment — to say, “Ever since this committee was put together, we’ve hit walls, brought on by the administration and some of the selectmen.” Zaidman said he’d never seen the March 2011 charge that Berkowitz e-mailed him after he made his recommendation to the planning board — and he had gone through all of the selectmen’s minutes since the committee was formed a year ago.

“I found no evidence that they (selectmen) voted on a charge,” said Zaidman. Referring to the threat that the committee might not be reappointed if they didn’t rescind their recommendation, he said, “If anybody should be sent down the road, it should be the four selectmen and the town manager.”

Zaidman said, “I have great disrespect for these folks . . . for them to come forward with this ridiculous piece of paper,” holding up the March 2011 charge.

CPC member Chuck Renneker wondered whether he and other committee members should have been allowed to attend the selectmen’s executive session. “Was this a personnel matter?” he asked.

“I think it’s a personality matter,” quipped Packard, prompting loud clapping from the eight or so supporters of the amendment in attendance. He continued, “We’re not being treated with the professionalism we’re supposed to be treated with.” He implied that the CPC’s action in taking their amendment directly to the planning board was treated as a “crisis” justifying an emergency executive session because it might negatively impact “another clandestine project,” referring to Avesta Housing, Inc.’s plans to cite a non-commercial affordable housing complex on the former Chapter 11 property in Pondicherry Square.

When selectmen met Feb. 28 to discuss appointed committees, member Paul Hoyt questioned the committee’s action in amending their charge. “I think, no, I know — a committee cannot change their charge. We had a charge that we set forth and in some manner, you decided to change it,” he told Wiser.

Wiser replied, “We had several charges and most of us didn’t have any charge, and never received a copy of the original charge. It was just murky, which charge is the real charge.”

Hoyt replied, “If it’s murky enough, it needs to come to us to clarify it.”

At that same meeting, Berkowitz, talking about how committees select a chairman, said the process was internally driven. “If they can’t play well in their own sandbox, they usually come back and seek help.”

Whose mistake is it?

At Monday’s CPC meeting, audience member Mark Lopez reminded Wiser that he declared that “we finally accomplished something,” after they voted to take their recommendation to the planning board. “I think the selectmen are making a big mistake,” by making an issue out of their bypassing the board in the process, Lopez said.

He went further, saying, “I think there’s something else going on here,” beyond a difference of opinion over the process. Others agreed, saying the real issue is the amendment’s potential threat to the Avesta project. The amendment’s retroactivity clause would kill the project unless Avesta reserves the ground floor for commercial use, and its investors have said that isn’t possible. Avesta plans to submit its project to the board at its first meeting in April.

Renneker said he believed the CPC had the right to make recommendations laterally to the planning board without going to selectmen first. He said the Community Development Committee doesn’t always go to the planning board first (a statement Triglione disputes), and that when he asked, “if our committee had the same authority, I was told ‘yes.’”

It was member Ray Turner who made the motion that the recommendation for the amendment remain in effect, “and we do not withdraw.”

The vote prompted applause, and Lopez said, “Thank you as a taxpayer, and thank you for doing the right thing.”

Please follow and like us: