‘Re-up fiasco’ shows first signs of healing

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Seeking to salvage their broken relationship with town committees over a new reappointment policy, the Bridgton Board of Selectmen and Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz took it on the chin Tuesday, allowing committee members and other frustrated residents to rebuke them for nearly an hour.

But both sides saw the hour-long back-and-forth as only a beginning. The board agreed to table any action on reappointments and continue the discussion by holding an informal meeting with members of all seven committees next Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 6 p.m. in the Selectmen’s meeting room. The goal would be to come to an understanding and agreement on what steps are necessary to restore communication and trust between elected and appointed officials.

It may take more than one sit-down session, all agreed, but in the meantime, the committees would continue to meet under their current membership.

Simmering resentments

The meeting was in strong contrast to their last meeting on Dec. 11, when virtually no public comment was allowed as the board voted 3–2 (with Bernie King and Doug Taft dissenting) to proceed with an annual reappointment plan and standardization of the format for charges given to committees. The board went ahead with the plan despite near unanimous criticism from the members of four committees. The members signed letters saying the board’s plan was a thinly veiled attempt to “recall” certain committee members, since their reappointment would not be guaranteed. Many committee members responded by not returning an application under the Dec. 21 deadline imposed by the new policy, leaving two committees — the Comprehensive Plan Committee and the Waste Water Committee — with only one member remaining.

The atmosphere Tuesday, however, was one of compromise. Board members Paul Hoyt, Woody Woodward and Bob McHatton, as well as Berkowitz, complied with requests to apologize, and acknowledged that the policy change was poorly communicated. McHatton and Woodward additionally said they were sorry for becoming angry and defensive at the Dec. 11 meeting — behavior that further incensed many committee members.

Strong words

Resident Dick Bennett, who does not serve on any town committee, started out the public comment by saying he was “appalled” by the board’s handling of the reappointment process, which he called “demeaning.” The genesis of the strife between selectmen and committee members had been simmering for quite some time, he said, yet the board “put (the new reappointment policy) out there at a time when the fuses and matches were ready to be lit.” He urged selectmen to sit down with committee members and talk it out, so the members “can be welcomed back to do their good work.”

CPC member Lucia Terry read two letters she had written to the board. The first, on Dec. 21, 2012, was intended, she said, as a reapplication, but only if selectmen were willing to table “the present re-up fiasco” and meet with all the committee members (See her statement below).

A second, longer letter detailed her view of how the present state of “disconnect” between the board and committee members came about, at least on the CPC. In that description, she said “the constant saying of one thing and doing another” of former Community and Economic Development Director Alan Manoian in working with the CPC during its first eight months “started to erode the working relationship” of the committee and the town. Then, after he left in January of 2012 and the committee began “to depend more on ourselves to manage the work and the process,” she said there was “poor communication and little participation from” selectmen, “with occasional wrist-slaps when you looked up and noticed the CPC might actually be doing something and you didn’t know about it.”

As for the reappointment controversy, Terry said the first that members knew of the change was when current Planning, Community and Economic Development Director Anne Krieg e-mailed them what she called a “reappointment” form (which was created years ago for new applicants) on Nov. 30. Terry said Krieg, being relatively new in the job, must have assumed “this was an annual known thing” and no more than a formality.

“This was a very unfortunate error in judgment on somebody’s part, and in no way is that somebody’s name Anne Krieg!” Terry said. Members were confused by Krieg’s e-mail, she said. When they subsequently learned that the board’s next agenda listed an item to discuss committee charges (which, in the CPC’s case, had already been revised earlier that year following an unrelated dispute between the CPC and selectmen), Terry said the CPC announced “We’ve had enough.”

Selectmen respond

After offering his apologies, Woodward said that there was a time, under a different chairman, that he and McHatton routinely acted on annual appointments rather than allowing members to serve until either they resigned or the committee was dissolved. He agreed it was a mistake for the board to assume all members of all committees were aware that the board was reviewing the policy on appointments. He said that, going forward, the board needs to ensure that committees are kept apprised of any decisions they make that might affect them. He also said that a new form should be created for committee members who are renewing their service.

“We’ve been working on a new policy, but we haven’t been working (at the same time) on a method of communication,” Woodward said. He added, however, “I can’t apologize for putting people on the chopping block, because we didn’t.”

McHatton said, since joining the board last June, he has wanted more regular and detailed information on the activities of committees than he had been receiving — a concern shared by Taft. McHatton said he would like to reinstate the policy of having a selectman serve as a liaison on each committee, saying it would solve much, if not all, of the current communication problems that are happening.

Taft said, in effect, that communication is a two-way street, because when he served as a committee liaison, the chairman “was circumventing me and doing things without my being aware of them.”

Hoyt also expressed frustration that some committee members initially responded to the reappointment request by writing letters to The News instead of calling him to ask for an explanation. He stressed that the mission statements of the committees were not changed.

Hoyt came under some extra fire when CPC member Greg Watkins said, “Paul, I’m going to ask you to stop speaking,” saying both sides appeared to be resolving their differences until he began to speak. Resident Nelle Ely then pointedly asked Hoyt, “Do you have an apology, or not?”

Hoyt asked what, specifically, he was being asked to apologize for, and then repeated earlier statements that every committee in Bridgton has done a great job.

“I’m sorry it has gotten to the point it has gotten to,” Hoyt said.

Berkowitz added his mea culpa by saying, “I’m clearly part of the problem, and I want to be part of the solution.” He acknowledged that he doesn’t always hear what is being said as clearly as he could.

“We recognize that we all have fingerprints on this issue,” said Berkowitz. “We have a lot of bright and talented people on the committees (and) I have to try harder.” The bottom line, he said, is that the polarization needs to be resolved because “I don’t think the community needs to suffer in the same cycle over and over again.”

Right decision

Mark Lopez hoped to include a letter to the editor in this week’s edition, but the section had already been prepared for publication. He asked to include the comments in this story.

“In the past, I have been quick to criticize actions taken by the Bridgton Board of Selectmen that I do not feel are in the best interest of the town or taxpayer. At the Jan. 8meeting, the selectmen took a giant step toward mending the divide that had developed between them and the volunteer committees that report to them.  They were able to put aside egos in the interest of moving the town forward. Their decision to keep existing committees seated and to meet in an informal format with the volunteer committee members to get things back on track was a prudent decision, it was a productive decision, and it was made in the best interest of the town. Thank you making the right decision,” — Mark Lopez, Bridgton.

Terry’s statement to Selectmen

(Editor’s note: Lucia Terry, Comprehensive Plan Committee member, read this statement of her concerns about the reapplication process to the Bridgton Board of Selectmen Tuesday.)

LAYING IT OUT — Bridgton Comprehensive Plan Committee member Lucia Terry outlined both the background of the current strife between committee members and selectmen and some possible solutions in two letters she wrote to the board and read at their Tuesday meeting. (Geraghty Photo)

 

To the Bridgton Select Board:

I ask that this letter be read aloud at the next Select Board meeting first thing, before the subject of it is addressed, and that it be part of the public record.

I would like to express my desire and intention to continue to serve as a member of the Comprehensive Plan Committee and finish the work we were appointed to do. You will notice I have not used the words “reapplication,” as I believe my original appointment was for the duration of the job set before the committee.

I would also like to comment on the current climate of no confidence we all find ourselves in. This was once again perpetuated by your choices and actions. Whatever the need for or intention was for this annual reappointment policy, the request for it should have been accomplished in a much better way, a way that would have lifted people up rather than tearing them down. Whether there were dark, evil intentions behind this request or not; the way it played out was the result of poor choices, poor communication, and bad timing from your end, causing even the most even-tempered volunteers to, well… lose it! My suggestion is a letter from the Select Board to each committee member, whether mailed or e-mailed, thanking them for their work, acknowledging the importance of that work and their appreciation of it, explaining the new policy, and asking that the reappointment papers be filled out by the date specified. And for goodness sake, if you want a form, make a separate form for the re-up, don’t just use the same form as the original application! Be respectful, and even a little bit sensitive to the reactive climate, which you have just stoked up again. This has to begin with you all; and some acknowledgement of how badly handled this last round was would be a good start. An apology wouldn’t hurt either.

Furthermore, there have been some good proposals made that would help to create a better working relationship between the Select Board and the committees. These would be to table the present re-up fiasco at the Jan. 8 meeting, and ask for a joint meeting of the Select Board and all the Committees. At this meeting all parties will have the chance to share suggestions for committee policy, committee charges and ways of working together that allow for better communication and productivity. Maybe hammer out a draft of these right at the meeting for the Select Board to take and finish; I know this is your job, your responsibility, but I have to say, you’ve made a real mess of it and I think you need some help. Then, after this is done and out there, follow perhaps the suggestion in the first paragraph and send the letter out and ask for the re-up.

If indeed you use this letter as a “re-application” and I am on the CPC come Jan. 8, 2013, please know that if these suggestions are not taken and these concerns are not addressed fully, I will immediately resign my position on that committee, so it will be kind of like I didn’t re-apply, which I’m not.

I thank you in advance for your thoughtfulness.

— Lucia Terry, citizen and CPC member

 

 

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