Manoian’s legacy takes center stage at BOS-committee summit

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Joined by the common cause of the town they love, 20 of Bridgton’s most dedicated public servants — selectmen, the town manager, economic development director and appointed committee members — sat around three long tables Tuesday for a most unusual meeting. Policy recommendations were set aside for the first two hours to focus on what moderator Steve Collins called “the festering sore” under the surface; the feeling of a betrayal of trust.

It didn’t take long for Alan Manoian’s name to come up. Comprehensive Plan Committee members explained how their trust in town government began to unravel well over a year ago, when the former economic and community development director abruptly stopped their work on form-based codes to focus on ordinance amendments needed by Avesta Housing, Inc. to build a 21-unit subsidized apartment complex in Pondicherry Square.

CPC member Chuck Renneker said he believes Manoian dropped the emphasis on form-based codes because their design standards wouldn’t have allowed Avesta’s flat-roofed design for the complex. He said that after Manoian left in January of 2012 and Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz assumed many of his duties, “we’ve had a situation where the town manager has not told the factual truth.”

CDC member Mark Lopez said the mistrust intensified when Avesta Board of Directors President Neal Allen said at a community meeting that the town had approached Avesta about siting the project in Pondicherry Square instead of at Crockett Ridge on Route 117. Manoian, however, had repeatedly stated the opposite.

“I want to trust you, but you’re dealing with intelligent people here,” Lopez said. “We have to be skeptical.”

Berkowitz reiterated that, “I did not, and Alan did not, call Avesta.” He said the town was contacted by Avesta Project Manager Matt Peters.

But Community Development Committee member Dee Miller said, “I think Alan did try to guide them from the (Crockett Ridge) site. That was one of his main goals.” CPC member Bob Wiser said Manoian openly stated his hope that if he could bring Avesta’s $4.5 million project to town, “That would be his crowning achievement in Bridgton.”

Collins, who had earlier noted the need for the group to focus on CPC member Mike Tarantino’s statement that Berkowitz was “a catalyst for conflict,” then said, “I think this is the nail in the shoe we’ve been talking about.” He said, “The real topic here is trust and good faith between the parties.”

Asked to comment, Berkowitz said, “I’m still listening.”

CPC member Dick Danis asked selectmen to imagine how it felt, after nine months and 36 consecutive weeks of meeting on form-based codes, to be told that “it was all for naught.” Turning to Berkowitz, he said, “What hurt was, Mitch, Alan was your man, but it ended up to be a dead-end road.”

Berkowitz said he agreed with Manoian’s suggestion to have the CPC begin their work on form-based codes as a way to “broaden their focus” for the later work on updating the Comprehensive Plan.

CPC member Glen “Bear” Zaidman said Manoian offered no explanation for the switch in focus, and that’s where the breakdown began. Things became much worse, noted Renneker, when the board and Berkowitz accused the CPC in mid-2012 of “overstepping their authority” by going to the Planning Board with an ordinance recommendation to preserve the first floor of downtown buildings for commercial use, in response to Avesta’s all-residential proposal. Then, as the November 2012 vote that would decide Avesta’s fate drew near, the CPC went on record opposing the ordinance changes, and the schism became wider when Berkowitz mistakenly told The News that the CPC had ordered current Planning, Economic and Community Development Director Anne Krieg to issue a press release about the vote.

The final straw came last month, when committee members balked at a new board policy requiring reappointment of members on an annual basis. Most refused to reapply, and the impasse was avoided only when the board stepped up and apologized at a conciliatory meeting last week.

Miller said a big part of the problem in communication was that “Alan was an all-or-nothing kind of guy. He would just turn on a dime and he was hard to read. If his ideas weren’t immediately accepted, he would go off in a tizzy,” she said. “There was a personality issue there.”

But she agreed with the frustrations expressed by others that the board does not currently have a systematic method for dealing with committee recommendations.

“I’ve been on the CDC for 12 years, and I can’t think of five things that have been accomplished,” Miller said.

She and other CDC members cited their frustration over the board’s treatment of a detailed, professional report they produced recommending action plans for the town-owned Salmon Point Campground.

The meeting also explored specific recommendations for improving communication, which will be taken up by selectmen at their meeting next Tuesday, Jan. 22, at 6 p.m. in the selectmen’s meeting room. Among the ideas were the following suggestions by CDC Chairman Mike Tarantino:

• Adopt a policy by which committee recommendations will be acted upon, one way or the other, within a specific time frame rather than being indefinitely tabled, or simply ignored.

• Have a standing agenda item of “Committee Reports” at each BOS meeting, allowing committees to

update the board as necessary on progress or receive guidance on specific proposals. If more time is needed, the item could be placed on a future agenda.

• Appoint a selectman to serve on selected committees as a liaison, participating in discussions but not voting.

• Have committees provide the board, not only with minutes, but also with a separate sheet detailing approved motions and recommendations.

 

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