June 24, 2018
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Bangor councilors face recall petition

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — A local resident has requested petitions to recall the five Bangor city councilors who voted Monday to uphold last month’s decision to end the city’s relationship with manager Ed Barrett.

Jim Elmore asked City Clerk Patti Dubois on Tuesday to prepare affidavits to begin the recall procedure — as outlined in Article IV, Section 11A of the City Charter — for Gerry Palmer, Pat Blanchette, David Nealley, Rick Bronson and Susan Hawes.

Once 10 registered voters sign the initial affidavits, Elmore and others will then have 60 days to gather 2,286 signatures from Bangor voters, 20 percent of residents who voted in the last municipal election, to initiate a recall vote.

“It had to be done. No one else was doing it,” Elmore said outside of City Hall on Tuesday after meeting with the city clerk and city solicitor.

The latest move heightens a growing discontent in the community at a time when some councilors just want to move forward. Some of that discontent spilled over into Monday’s regular council meeting, when Councilor Hal Wheeler made an unexpected motion to reinstate Barrett. That motion was rejected by a 5-4 vote, but only after 14 members of the public came to the podium to speak out against the council’s decision and to praise Barrett’s 22-year tenure.

On Tuesday, the discussion was less about the narrow vote than about a severely fractured council and the city’s need for damage control.

“I think the council has broken the bond of confidence that exists with the public to the point where it’s probably beyond repair,” Wheeler said Tuesday, adding that he expected a recall request.

Palmer also said he wasn’t surprised to hear about a recall movement, but he called it unfortunate.

“It robs the process,” he said.

Councilors Hawes and Blanchette each said Tuesday night that a resident has every right to explore a recall, but Blanchette wondered about the motive.

Newly elected council Chairman Richard Stone thought Monday’s meeting and discussion was something that needed to happen, and he felt it was cathartic for many.

“They needed to come and talk and it was important that we gave them an opportunity to be heard,” Stone said. “But it’s time for us as a council to move on.”

A petition drive to recall five of the nine councilors will certainly make it tougher for that to happen, although Elmore acknowledged it may be difficult to get enough signatures to move the ball forward.

“At least it sends a message,” he said. “What this council did was high-handed and rude.”

Bangor’s last recall effort was in 2003, when resident Arvilla Verceles attempted to remove seven of nine councilors who supported $381,000 in improvements to Husson College’s baseball complex. Those efforts failed to gather the minimum number of signatures needed to force an election.

If enough signatures are gathered this time, the city would either host a special election or conduct the recall vote during the June 2010 primary elections, Dubois said. A special election likely would cost the city $15,000, but if the vote were held during the June primary, the added cost would be negligible.

Wheeler said on Tuesday that he didn’t think his motion to reinstate Barrett would pass, but at the very least, he wanted the public to see how each councilor felt.

The initial decision to force Barrett’s retirement was made late last month in an executive session and was then approved quickly and unanimously in open session, a process that prompted many residents to assume that the whole story was not being told. Geoff Gratwick, who opposed the decision, said he voted publicly to ap-prove it out of deference to Barrett, who had not yet told his staff of his retirement.

Wheeler, who sided with the majority a month ago, said he changed his mind, and some bristled at the sudden reversal.

“It makes things difficult when we keep flipping and flopping. That doesn’t go over well with the public,” Palmer said.

Even if Monday’s vote went the other way, there was no guarantee Barrett would have stayed in Bangor. He is one of two finalists for the city administrator position in Lewiston and that decision is expected by the end of the month.

But for Elmore and some others, the recent actions of the council are about more than just Barrett. Frank Farrington, a former council chairman who served with many of the current councilors, said he has lost confidence in the nine-member group. Many more expressed concerns not just about the decision to force Barrett’s re-tirement, but about the manner in which it was handled.

“I’m a little concerned about what’s next,” said resident Steve Ribble. “If [Barrett] leaves tomorrow, where are we?”

Councilor Bronson urged those in attendance Monday not to confuse leadership with management. He also said the 40 people who attended did not represent the 32,000 residents of Bangor.

Stone, who voted in the minority to reinstate Barrett, stressed that the council is working hard on the next steps. Along those lines, the council chairman has selected a facilitator to help lead vision-honing sessions in the coming weeks. The city manager search, which will be conducted by an outside recruiting agency, could take many months.

“We need to keep the public informed about what we’re doing and get them to understand we’re taking positive steps,” he said. “But I don’t think we need to engage the public at every step of the way, or we won’t get anything done.”

The city’s vision has been a topic of conversation ever since the announcement was made that Barrett would retire. For years, Bangor has had its vision statement hanging on the wall inside the city council chamber on the third floor of City Hall.

It reads in part, “Bangor, the economic and cultural hub of Northern and Central Maine and gateway to the Maritimes, is a community providing abundant opportunities, valued services, and quality of life for its citizens and visitors.”

Recently, the walls inside the chamber were painted and the framed statement was taken down.

It has not been put back up since.

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