Besieged councilors, facing recall vote, want to move on

Posted Nov. 25, 2009, at 7:56 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The five city councilors who are facing a potential recall vote attempted Wednesday to deflect criticism over their decision to uphold the retirement agreement with manager Ed Barrett.

David Nealley, Rick Bronson, Gerry Palmer, Susan Hawes and Pat Blanchette held a press conference to respond to recall petitions that were requested Tuesday by resident Jim Elmore.

Bronson, who spoke on behalf of the group, said the council made a difficult decision letting Barrett go and then reaffirmed that decision. Now councilors want to move on to important city affairs.

“We understand that we’re a lightning rod,” Bronson said. “But our job is to make decisions on the information we have at hand.”

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Hal Wheeler, the only councilor not to attend Wednesday’s press conference, was dismayed at the hasty way in which it was called, and after learning of its substance termed it a charade.

Elmore started the petition process Tuesday, one day after those five councilors voted against a motion to reinstate Barrett. The first hurdle in the petition process is to get 10 signatures from registered voters. Then, once the petitions are validated, the petitioners will have 60 days to gather 2,286 signatures (20 percent of the total number of voters from the last municipal election). If that happens, a citywide recall election will be scheduled. The last recall process was initiated in 2003 but did not generate enough signatures to move forward.

In late October, councilors met in executive session and negotiated a deal for Barrett to retire on or before April 30, 2010 — about 18 months before his contract was to expire. When the council made the decision in open session, it was unanimous and there was no debate or discussion about why the deal was made or even what the decision meant.

Since then, one councilor — Geoff Gratwick — has come out publicly against the decision and explained that he didn’t vote against it initially because he wanted to give Barrett time to tell his staff. Other councilors began to rethink the retirement deal, including Richard Stone and Wheeler, who introduced the motion Monday to reinstate Barrett. Gratwick, Stone, Wheeler and newcomer Cary Weston voted to reinstate, but the motion failed 5-4.

Several residents, including many former city councilors, attended Monday’s meeting to speak in favor of keeping Barrett. Many criticized the council for the way his retirement agreement was handled, and others challenged the council to be more transparent about their reasons for pursuing a new direction.

Barrett, for his part, did not solicit the support he received at Monday night’s meeting, and it wasn’t even a done deal that he would have stayed on if the voted were different. Barrett is a finalist for the city administrator position in Lewiston.

After Monday’s vote, Barrett expressed thanks and agreed with the sentiments to move forward. Elmore’s petition request and the pending recall have stalled those efforts, but Bronson said he thinks those who are upset about the decision are a small but vocal minority.

Hawes said the hardest part about the now-public debate is that the council has lost the trust of the public. She hoped that by putting their heads down and tackling things such as moving the new arena forward and harnessing development opportunities on the waterfront would help.

As for the direction and vision that have generated so much buzz, Bronson urged patience. Hawes said that councilors may have been wrong to announce Barrett’s retirement without rolling out their new vision at the same time, but she said the public needs to trust the people they have elected.

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