Town officials question non-official development meetings

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

Citizens for Responsible Growth, the pro-development group that fought successfully to defeat a ban on big box stores and fast food restaurants along Portland Road, has broadened its mission to one of “Moving Bridgton Forward,” and is using the social media of Facebook to bounce around ideas for future economic development in Bridgton.

Bill Macdonald, who began the Facebook site and maintains it, said Monday the group’s intent now is to bring regular citizens together for informal dialogue to maintain the momentum and interest in positive change in Bridgton brought about by the contentious March 1 referendum vote. They have met weekly for the past three weeks at various locations, and are meeting this Friday at 7 p.m. at Lee Eastman’s Everlast Roofing business on South High Street.

On Monday, Macdonald wrote on the page, “I want to make sure it is very clear to everyone that our group is now comprised of citizens representing both sides of the March 1st vote. Our group is stronger than before and it is obvious everyone involved is willing to work together to make Bridgton a better place. The doors to our meetings are always open and we invite everyone to attend.”

“It’s kind of a grassroots group of folks, and we’re sharing ideas about what we feel are the good points and the bad points” of methods of land use regulations such as form-based codes versus traditional zoning, Eastman said Monday. “We want to keep the ball rolling and move Bridgton forward.”

But at Monday’s meeting of the Economic Development Committee, Manoian questioned the propriety of the meetings, since the core group comprising Citizens for Responsible Growth also serve as appointed town officials on the Economic Development Committee. These include Ray Turner, Mark Lopez, Ken Murphy, Chuck Renneker, Mike Tarantino and Eastman. Having more than a quorum of committee members gathering to meet and discuss economic development issues outside of the normal meetings may constitute a violation of state Right to Know laws, Manoian said.

“I said, ‘Guys, what are you doing? You’re appointed public officials. And you’re discussing this stuff” outside of regular meetings, Manoian said.

Tarantino told selectmen Tuesday he and other members have a difference of opinion from Manoian on the matter, as well as the mission they should have at this point, now that the Economic Development Corporation has been established to guide business development and attraction.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz is also concerned, pointing out that the law is clear in this regard, requiring posted agendas and meeting places that are ADA compliant. “You just can’t meet privately while doing the same work on a publicly-appointed committee,” Berkowitz said Monday. “It concerns me that the whole issue of transparency is being mocked.”

Eastman scoffed at the notion that the group was doing anything wrong. “It’s a big world, and people have opinions. This has nothing to do with too many cooks in the kitchen.” He added that while he respected Manoian’s and Berkowitz’s position, “They’re walking a line that I don’t care to walk. We have no idea where this thing is going to go, but why should we stand still when we’re already having conversations? We want to keep the energy level up.”

Macdonald said last Friday’s meeting attracted 17 people, both on the pro-ban and anti-ban side of national chain development. He said pro-ban supporter Scott Finlayson has attended two of their meetings, and the dialogue has been useful in bringing the two sides together. An ex-selectman has also attended one of the meetings, he added.

Eastman said the town should be thankful that the group is fostering ideas that can be funneled back to the official Comprehensive Plan Committee, which has been charged with writing a new ordinance for the Portland Road commercial corridor. “We don’t have a hidden agenda. We just want to help,” he said.

Berkowitz said he hasn’t been briefed on what’s been discussed at the meetings, so he can’t say with any certainty that there’s been a Right to Know Law violation. He said he plans to keep the board of selectmen informed and also contact members of the economic development committee as to their obligations as public officials.

The Facebook page has member contributions of videos discussing form-based codes and includes members from the young professionals group in Bridgton, Macdonald pointed out. He added that it was a separate effort from a new Facebook page that’s sprouted up by resident Bill Vincent called “Community of Bridgton, Me.,” and that Facebook users are free to create any pages they want to foster public discussions.

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