City Council actions need explanation

Posted Nov. 13, 2009, at 8:03 p.m.

Anyone who volunteers to sit on boards, committees or councils is aware that the decision to leave a meeting early may well result in your being appointed to chair a newly established committee during a vote taken later in the meeting for which you were absent.

It’s like the scene from cartoons or sitcoms when a person in charge asks for a volunteer to step forward and everyone else in the line — except for one poor, naive schmuck — takes a giant step backward.

That’s the image which came to my mind as the new and clearly divided Bangor City Council geared up to elect its new council chairman.

Although I guess he was willing to take the post, I still can’t help but envision Councilor Richard Stone standing alone, looking to his right and to his left with an “Oh, damn, what just happened?” look on his face.

The vote to elect the largely ceremonial position was itself divisive and a bit nasty, which only serves to suggest the degree of animosity that unfortunately threatens to set the tone for the coming year.

Differences of opinion and philosophy are a good thing when it comes to politics of any nature. But personal vendettas, back stabbing and schoolyard antics can quickly derail progress, and right now it would seem that the Bangor City Council — and hence the city itself — is at risk of that occurring at a time when there is extremely critical business to attend to.

Replacing longtime City Manager Ed Barrett is one issue at hand. Barrett has spent a nearly unprecedented term of 22 years as manager of Bangor.

The decision by the council to ask him to leave with nothing more than “we’re seeking a new vision” as a reason given to the public continues to create controversy.

Even when pressed by residents and the media, not one city councilor who voted in favor of Barrett’s forced “retirement” has been able to articulate what that new “vision” entails.

The council certainly was within its rights to seek the end of Barrett’s reign. He serves at its pleasure, and it need not provide great explanation to him as to its decision to replace him.

That does not mean, however, that the residents of Bangor cannot seek and expect some answers. The council members who advocated for his removal so far have ignored those requests.

Interestingly, one of those at the forefront of Barrett’s removal because the city needed new and fresh “vision” was Councilor Pat Blanchette, who has served on the council for 12 years and was just elected to serve three more.

I’ve known and covered Blanchette for a number of those years and as a reporter and taxpayer have always had a fondness for her willingness to speak her mind. She certainly has shown her willingness to serve the public and put in the time necessary to do so.

But if it’s a new vision we are looking for, I question whether she’s the one to lead us there. For decades Blanchette has run and been elected to both local and state posts repeating her mantra that she is a thorn in the side of “good old boys politics.” She played that card again this week when she publicly claimed that Stone was elected council chairman through political maneuvering perpetuated by pervasive “good old boy” attitudes.

If Bangor needs a new vision, then perhaps Blanchette needs a new slogan and, more important, a new excuse when things don’t go her way.

Councilor Geoff Gratwick, who also was just re-elected, has publicly opposed Barrett’s removal. He did so days after it occurred in an open letter to the local media, accusing the council of acting with a “lack of transparency.”

He was present during the executive session in which Barrett’s future with the city was discussed, and he was present for the vote in public session immediately afterward. He said he did not oppose the “unanimous” vote because he knew he was outnumbered and the conflict could have landed the issue in the media before Barrett had a chance to inform his staff of the council’s decision.

Perhaps. But the issue before the council that night was dissolving the contract of a 22-year, well-known and critical public employee. If Gratwick was staunchly opposed to the council’s actions and felt those actions were questionable, then he should not have sat silent at the table as the vote took place in public. Not for any reason. Yet instead of acting then, he took time to collect his thoughts and took shots at his fellow councilors on his own terms in a letter to the media that he served up just days before the election.

Gratwick and Blanchette were both re-elected and, not surprisingly, were on opposite sides of the vote to choose a new council chairman.

In addition to finding a new city manager, the council is set to decide whether the city should set forth on the first two phases of the construction of a new 5,400-seat arena with a $73.6 million price tag.

Stone will be the fella holding the gavel at the meetings to come. Time will tell whether he has what it takes to navigate through the dissension and ensure that the work that is necessary gets done.

I hope all can step up to the plate and play grown-up. Yet I can’t squash this new image that keeps creeping into my head — that of Stone as the teacher on recess duty who is so busy keeping blood from being shed that he never gets to see the actual game progress.

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