Debates on audits at Casco Board of Selectmen meeting

By Dawn De Busk
Staff Writer

CASCO - Casco Town Manager Dave Morton said the hype over the state auditor’s recent review into whether or not Casco Board of Selectmen had intentionally violated a state law by not formally voting at least once a year to hire the auditing firm that the town’s been using for the past decade is “much ado about nothing.”

It remains to be seen if the State of Maine will levy fines against Morton and the board of selectmen, and if paperwork submitted by the town to the state — including minutes from past meetings in which selectmen verbally approved hiring the auditor — will suffice to show the Town of Casco was not aware it was breaking the law. That chapter hasn’t been revealed yet.

In order to error on the side of prudence, the Casco Board of Selectmen on Tuesday voted to approve the appointment of auditing firm, Purdy Powers, for 2009/10 fiscal year.

However, as the subject of audits came up, the human scene played out like a Shakespearean performance.

In a twist of plot, the town attorney leapt to her feet and saved Jeannine Lauber-Oren from being removed from the Finance Committee by a board vote.

“I recommend that the town not vote on this tonight,” Town Attorney Natalie Burns, Esq., said, adding she’d research it and give the board her legal advice before it removes anyone from a committee.

Following the meeting, Morton said, “Certainly, Natalie doesn’t want the board involved in anything defamatory. Natalie just wanted to make sure it was done correctly. There’s a proper procedure for removing committee members.”

Earlier, when public participation time arrived, Lauber-Oren was the first to speak. She took the spot at the microphone, and asked the board to give her some direction on expanding her role on the finance committee – according to what she understood the duties of a finance committee member should be after reading the Town’s Comprehensive Plan recently.  No one responded to the question.

Again, she requested the board’s direction. Members looked baffled.

Then, she said, “I would like to see how the town is responding to the state auditor, Neria Douglas, the state auditor…”

Selectman Ray Grant answered the question before it was finished.

“I talked to her today and she didn’t think there was any” improper behavior on the board’s part. “She said we could vote belatedly” that the town manager has permission to give the annual audit job to Purdy Powers, he said.

Chairman Barbara York said, “Looking at her letter, she pointed out something that I truly did not know: We should be voting every year to move auditing books to an auditing company. It’s the selectmen’s responsibility. From now on, we’ll try to do it properly.”

Selectman Carroll Morton corrected York, “It’s not that we will try to do it properly. We will do it properly. It’s a state law.”

Carroll Morton had sent a letter dated Oct. 6 to the state attorney’s office, reporting that the board had been by-passing a state law when the town hired Purdy Powers. During an Oct. 12 meeting, York asked Morton if he’d sent the letter; and he said, “No.” A few moments later, he said maybe he sent an e-mail, but he didn’t remember.

On Tuesday, when the board members had finished most of the discussion regarding the state auditor’s review into the town following protocol, another community member went the podium.

Sam Brown, who serves on the finance committee with Lauber-Oren, said her calm demeanor was a far cry from the frantic way she had stirred up community members – including Holly Hancock and Ted Ropple – with phone calls over the weekend. Lauber-Oren had demanded an emergency meeting of the finance committee to address the state auditor’s focus on the Town of Casco. Later, Ropple played a message from his phone over the microphone to illustrate Lauber-Oren’s panic and the emergency meeting she was trying to coordinate.

At first, Brown began with tongue-in-cheek comments of how glad he was to have Lauber-Oren as a fellow finance committee member. He complimented her on her ability to promote democracy by getting more people paying attention to local government.

Then, he asked why she couldn’t just be happy going to the finance committee meetings that are scheduled on the calendar. He asked her to quit making the position of finance committee be a more far-reaching job than it is.

“You are hawkish,” he said angrily. Then, he defended the town’s fiscal honor.

“I don’t think there is a sleight of hand. At Casco Community Days, David works his butt off when he’s running the bingo game. But, he’s certainly not lining his pockets,” Brown said.

“I think our town manager has learned a lesson, he won’t be approving the selection of an auditor without getting the board’s vote first,” he said.

With the same emotional momentum as Brown’s words, Selectman Paul Edes made a knee-jerk reaction motion, stating the board should vote to give Lauber-Oren’s the boot from the town’s volunteer finance committee.

“I believe that we should remove Jeannine from the finance committee,” Edes said, adding that he’s sick of her using the name of the committee as though she has the authority of Town Hall.

Selectman Mary-Vienessa Fernandes seconded it as soon as Edes put the motion into a sentence.

But, Burns jumped to the podium and advised the selectmen to refrain from voting – at least during that evening’s meeting. She said she would research the removal of citizens from committees, and counsel the board on what to do next.

The following day in a phone interview, Lauber-Oren said she “absolutely wants to stay on the finance committee” and was willing to “compromise” to a degree with other members in order to continue serving in that capacity.

“Politics is the art of compromise,” she said, adding she feels like she has compromised by remaining composed at meetings and sometimes enduring heckling and being asked to leave the room. But, she keeps coming back.

“I do know I am a lightning rod for this issue,” Oren said. “Social change and reform never comes easy. People are resistant to change because they’re comfortable with how things have been done.”

“I care about Casco. I’ve lived in this town. My children went to school here. I am invested in Casco,” she said. “I want this town to be doing things legal” -- something she thinks will happen from this time forward regarding the board’s policy to okay auditor hiring with a formal motion.

“Anytime, you have municipality that has not had a legal (without selectmen vote) audit for more than 12 years, it is a fiscal crisis,” she said. “And, I can’t be talked out of the mindset.”

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