Was executive session legal?

By Lisa Williams Ackley

Staff Writer

Bridgton selectmen admitted they may have violated the state’s Right to Know Law last month, when they held an emergency executive session on Feb. 29 to discuss their charge to the Comprehensive Plan Committee.

“It is questionable, and we’ll find out (from legal counsel), whether that (Feb. 29) executive session was totally legal,” Chairman Arthur Triglione Sr. said March 13.

Selectman Doug Taft was the only one of the five selectmen who did not take part in the Feb. 29 executive session. Selectmen Triglione, Paul Hoyt, Bernie King and Woody Woodward did participate in the closed-door executive session.

Tuesday night, the selectmen asked the members of the Comprehensive Plan Committee to sit down at their table and discuss what happened and the board’s proposed new charge to the Committee.

Last week, Triglione and Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said the Comprehensive Plan Committee “went beyond their authority” by making a recommendation for a zoning change in the downtown area directly to the planning board, without first seeking approval to do so from the selectmen who appointed them.

Explaining the reason for the Feb. 29 executive session, Chairman Triglione told the Comprehensive Plan Committee members, “We know we got into this controversy because the Board of Selectmen were concerned about your recommendation to the planning board. We were not concerned about the substance of the recommendation you made — we felt it was outside of the charge (given the Committee by the selectmen).”

The selectmen held a regular board meeting on Feb. 28, one day prior to the Feb. 29 executive session.

State law allows an executive session to be held on personnel matters, particularly if statements made “could be reasonably expected to cause damage to the reputation or the individual’s right to privacy would be violated.”

Selectman Woodward explained his reason for believing the executive session was legal and appropriately called.

Woodward said the board did not find out until Feb. 29 that the Comprehensive Plan Committee was planning to go to the planning board with its recommendation for a zoning change in downtown Bridgton. Selectman Woodward explained that the four selectmen did not know until afterwards that the Comprehensive Plan Committee had already met with the planning board about their proposed amendment the same night — Feb. 28 — as Comprehensive Plan Committee Chairman Bob “Bud” Wiser was meeting in the next room with the selectmen.

“We never thought, at that time, they (the Comprehensive Plan Committee) would go to the planning board when they did,” said Woodward. “We held the executive session so we wouldn’t embarrass them (the committee members). We did not want to say anything negative…we were trying to handle this without publicly chastising the Committee.”

Comprehensive Plan Committee member, Glen “Bear” Zaidman, said, “Usually neighbors, friends and the community get together and talk about it” when an issue arises. “You say you didn’t know what we were doing…”

“We did not know the Comprehensive Plan Committee was going to the planning board that (same) night (Feb. 28),” Woodward replied.

Zaidman then asked Chairman Triglione to state “word for word” what he told Wiser, when he called him immediately after the Feb. 29 executive session.

Triglione said he told Wiser in that phone conversation, “We have a concern that the Comprehensive Plan Committee went outside their charge by going to the planning board and we have grave concerns about that.”

Zaidman then asked Wiser what Triglione said to him in that phone conversation.

“I don’t remember it exactly,” Wiser said, “but he (Triglione) told me the selectmen strongly recommended we withdraw our recommendation to the planning board or not be reappointed (to the Comprehensive Plan Committee).”

Woodward said again the intent of holding the executive session was to avoid “besmirching someone’s character.”

Comprehensive Plan Committee member Chuck Renneker said it was Executive Assistant Georgiann Fleck who suggested the Committee take their ordinance amendment proposal directly to the planning board prior to going to the selectmen.

“Georgiann pointed out that (going to the selectmen first) was a needless step,” said Renneker, as it is the planning board that holds public hearings on proposed ordinance changes before forwarding them on to the selectmen for a vote by townspeople.

Selectman Hoyt said he concurred with Renneker’s explanation, stating, “I agree with you, Chuck. You did something we didn’t like, so let’s move on from here.”

Comprehensive Plan Committee member Lucia Terry said of her committee, “I believe our intent in drafting the proposed amendment was not to intentionally bypass anything — we were using the planning board as a resource to help us craft that (amendment).”

“You jumped into an executive session because you thought we were trying to bypass rules and regulations — no way were we doing that,” Zaidman said, and then asked why the board felt it was necessary to hold the executive session in the first place.

“Because we felt you overstepped your boundary and your charge,” said Chairman Triglione.

Chris Arsenault asked the selectmen and Berkowitz if any of them or their family members have a vested current or future financial interest in Avesta Housing, the agency that may bring a proposal for a 21-unit senior housing complex to the former Chapter 11 site on Main Street. All five selectmen and the town manager said they do not have any interest, whatsoever, in Avesta.

Mark Lopez told the selectmen they “publicly embarrassed” the Comprehensive Plan Committee members and they should apologize to them publicly.

“I’m not going to play the game,” Woodward told Lopez.

“It’s not a game, Woody, and you’re making it a game,” Lopez shot back.

Berkowitz was asked more than once if he has ever met with Avesta officials. The town manager said he had met one of the Avesta officials when introduced to him by former Bridgton Economic Development Director Alan Manoian.

Responding to insinuations that “secret meetings” were held with Avesta representatives, Berkowitz made it clear that that was not the case, explaining that a potential developer’s intentions — whether it is Avesta or another company — are confidential to that developer(s) until such time as they so choose to make it public and present a formal application to the planning board.

The new CPC charge

The selectmen have set a joint meeting with the Comprehensive Plan for March 29 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the new proposed charge drawn up by Berkowitz on behalf of the board.

One paragraph of the document that deals with the Committee’s process and charge reads, “The Committee is not authorized to engage in contractual services, authorize expenses, to purchase any goods or services nor may they unilaterally determine elements to be included or excluded from the (Comprehensive) Plan except by a vote of the majority of the Committee. Such votes must be reported directly to the Board of Selectmen.”

The entire charge will be discussed at the March 29 joint meeting.

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