BAR HARBOR, Maine — After a verbal confrontation between a town councilor and the chairman of the local planning board, and a subsequent open personnel hearing on the matter at Tuesday’s Town Council meeting, councilors have decided to express their concerns about the incident in a written letter to the planning board.
Whether Lynne Williams, chairman of the planning board, should recuse herself from reviewing development applications that Councilor Paul Paradis expects to submit to the town will be left for the planning board to decide.
The alleged incident between Paradis and Williams, a former Green party candidate for governor who now is running for the state Senate, occurred July 6 at Geddy’s Pub on Main Street.
According to a written account of the incident that Paradis provided the council, Williams approached him at Geddy’s Pub in front of at least two other people and loudly accused him of stacking the planning board in his favor. Planning board members, including Williams, an attorney who has been involved with many environmental and human rights causes in Maine over the past 10 years, are appointed to the board by the Town Council.
Planning board appointments have been a contentious issue in Bar Harbor. In May, despite having had a vacancy on the board for months, the council decided not to immediately review the application of former planning board member Barbara Fenderson to fill the vacancy. When the council decided the next month to appoint three new members to the five-member board, it did not appoint Fenderson or renew the appointment of then-Chairman Kevin Cochary.
The council and the planning board before the new appointments also have disagreed over the zoning of the former Cat ferry terminal on Eden Street. The parcel’s use as a ferry terminal has been grandfathered as a nonconforming use, but the discontinuation of the ferry service last winter has put its grandfathered status in jeopardy.
The council, including Paradis, has voiced support for changing the zoning of the terminal and adjacent properties so commercial uses such as ferry operations might be allowed without having to be grandfathered. The planning board, including Williams, has said the zoning in the neighborhood should stay as it is. Local voters will decide on the proposed zoning change in November.
Paradis says in his written account of his exchange with Williams that she told him she “would get even with me in November” and then walked away. Paradis indicated that he interpreted this statement as a threat and that he was legally required to report it.
The council placed the item on Tuesday’s agenda as a personnel matter. Williams requested that the council’s discussion of the incident be held in open session.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Williams told the council that Paradis’ representation of the exchange was pretty much accurate, but said her parting comment was not a threat. Paradis recused himself from the council’s discussion of the matter but remained in the council chambers to observe.
Williams told the council all residents have a right to criticize public officials and that her exchange with Paradis is protected as freedom of speech. By her reference to November, Williams said, she was merely saying that voters who share her point of view about the ferry terminal zoning will prevail at the polls this fall.
“I stand by what I said to Councilor Paradis,” Williams told the council. “I would say it again and add a few things.”
Several councilors said residents have the right to disagree with the council’s actions and that they all have been met at one time or another in public by critical comments.
But some councilors said Williams crossed a line. Criticism is OK, they said, but the town charter calls for all town officials, both elected and appointed, to conduct themselves in a manner that inspires public confidence in town government.
“This type of behavior in public, even between two [elected] councilors, is not appropriate,” Councilor Rob Jordan said.
Councilor Matt Horton agreed, suggesting the council give Williams a written reprimand.
“These types of exchanges don’t inspire public confidence,” Horton said. “I think we have a responsibility here.”
Williams cautioned the council, however, about overreacting. If the council removed Williams from the board or tried to prevent her from presiding over reviews of development applications from Paradis, it would send a signal that applicants who think officials might oppose their proposals could effectively negate that opposition merely by filing complaints about those officials ahead of time, she said.
“This is a slippery slope,” she said.
Under the advice of Lee Bragg, the town’s attorney, the council decided it did not have the authority to decide whether Williams should recuse herself from any planning board deliberations over Paradis’ proposals.
By a 4-2 vote, with Paradis abstaining, the council decided to draft a letter expressing its concerns about Williams’ behavior and to send it to the planning board. Whether Williams might have a conflict in reviewing Paradis’ projects will be up to the planning board to decide, they said.
Councilors Horton, Jordan, Sandy McFarland and Peter St. Germain voted in favor of writing and sending the letter. Councilor Jane Disney and Chairman Ruth Eveland voted against it.