Loose lips and hidden recorders in Bangor

Posted Feb. 12, 2010, at 9:41 p.m.

So I’m thinking that any councilor or selectman in the state who has found himself at the center of public scrutiny or controversy is feeling just a bit smug as he watches the antics in Bangor these days.

There must be some enjoyment at seeing in the headlines the names of other councilors accused of behaving badly.

This week at center stage? Bangor City Councilor Hal Wheeler.

Wheeler, extraordinarily frustrated with the city’s tenuous relationship with the American Folk Festival, secretly recorded a meeting between City Finance Director Debbie Cyr, interim City Manager Bob Farrar and Solicitor Norman Heitmann.

He was caught and on Monday night publicly censured by the rest of the City Council.

There were a couple of questions and answers missing from the subsequent news coverage — Why did he do it? And perhaps more interesting: How did he get caught?

Earlier this week Wheeler explained that he recorded the meeting for his “own accuracy.”

“I knew it was going to be an extended conversation with details dating back to 2002. I wanted to make sure I had the facts straight. I planned on listening to it and then erasing it,” he said.

Not a bad explanation. It’s admirable he wanted to make sure he got his facts straight and did not want to risk misrepresenting what city staffers may have told him during the meeting.

But why the need to hide the tape recorder? Why not put it right out on the table?

“There’s no real answer to that,” Wheeler said, adding that he thought the presence of a recording device might interfere with a genuine, frank discussion.

“I thought the answers I received to my questions might be guarded. I wanted an open and unaffected conversation,” he said.

Of course he wanted that open and direct conversation behind closed doors and secretly recorded.

And he almost got away with it.

To give credit where it is due, Wheeler accepted his public admonishment without any whining or denying. That was refreshing. He admitted his mistake and asked the forgiveness of the City Council, staff and taxpayers.

I had hoped when I asked him how he got caught that he might have told me that after returning home with the clandestine tape he realized his lapse in judgment, fessed up and turned it over.

But alas, it was not to be. Instead it was the simple fact that loose lips do indeed sink ships and Bangor is a small city after all.

Seems Wheeler confided his bad behavior to a friend while dining at a local restaurant.

“I guess someone overheard me and called up the council chair,” Wheeler said this week.

On Thursday Wheeler was planning to take the tape over to City Hall as the city solicitor had determined that its contents were public record.

“They are going to put it on a CD,” he said, “and I can assure you that there is nothing on it that would embarrass or shame anyone.”

No one can remember the last time a city councilor was censured, but the word certainly has been tossed around quite a bit. In 2008 former City Council Chair Richard Greene was nearly censured when he was charged with forging then City Manager Ed Barrett’s name on invoices and then was arrested for shoplifting. He resigned before the censure occurred.

A few months ago some councilors suggested that City Councilor Geoffrey Gratwick be censured for daring to go to the press with his concerns about the manner in which Barrett was dismissed.

Apparently someone was smart enough to let that brilliant idea die a quiet death.

The City Council, however passionate and well-intentioned, is off-course. Having different opinions and backgrounds is not a bad thing, but as Chair Stone pointed out at Monday’s meeting, “Oftentimes when we get anxious and critical of others, the window through which we view life gets foggy.”

When the councilors opted to oust Barrett they did so because they sought a “new vision” for the city.

Just maybe it’s time for Bangor city councilors to stop and think for just a moment and wipe their glasses clean.

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