NEWBURGH, Maine — Town officials say they are close to hiring a town manager despite the fact that an aggressive group of concerned residents calling themselves “The Fixers” is moving forward in its quest to eliminate Newburgh’s town manager-led form of government.
First Selectman Leonard Belcher said Friday that the search for a manager has been narrowed from 34 applications to two candidates, at least one of whom has been offered the job. Belcher declined to discuss the terms of the potential contract or any details about the top candidates. As of 4 p.m. Monday — the close of business at the town office — no one had yet accepted the job, according to interim Town Manager Lois Libby.
Arguing that Newburgh is too small for a town manager, members of The Fixers in June submitted two petitions calling for major changes regarding town officials. One of the petitions would switch Newburgh to a selectmen-town administrator form of government and the other would enact a recall ordinance allowing residents to remove an elected official from office at any time if that person is deemed by voters unfit for the job. The signatures on both petitions have been validated, according to Libby.
These developments come at a time when the town is embroiled in controversy, much of it surrounding the alleged theft of nearly $200,000 of town money by former treasurer and deputy town clerk Cindy Dunton. The thefts — which Dunton has admitted to but has not yet been formally charged with — have led to widespread ramifications ranging from the resignation of former Town Manager Nancy Hatch earlier this year to repeated calls by some residents for the resignations of all three selectmen.
Chris Yountz is one of the founders of The Fixers. In addition to maintaining a blog at the website www.newburghblog.blogspot.com, Yountz and others have investigated a range of town financial issues and voiced criticisms at numerous selectmen meetings.
“I just can’t believe that the selectmen are so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t see this is affecting the town as a whole,” Yountz said during a recent interview. “All I really want to do is to get their attention and get them to do their work or get out of the way.”
Belcher declined to discuss allegations leveled at him by Yountz and others, though he and the other two selectmen — Stanley Smith and Leona Smith — have defended themselves during public meetings and rebuffed suggestions that they resign.
In June, after the release of an auditor’s report outlining Dunton’s alleged thefts, Belcher told the Bangor Daily News he has dealt with the situation appropriately, beginning when he uncovered the thefts in mid-March.
“This has been very hard for me personally, being the chairman of the board,” said Belcher in June. “You sit in the town office every day and see people who come in and 80 or 90 percent are all saying, ‘Hang in there, you’re doing a good job.’ Then you have a few who like to cause trouble, and I don’t believe I’ve done any-thing wrong. There’s quite an opposition out there against us.”
Belcher said — and Yountz agreed — that the petition to move away from a town manager form of government won’t stop the town from hiring a manager now. According to a July 23 letter to Belcher from the Maine Municipal Association’s legal services department, the earliest that the town could vote on changing its form of government is the March 2011 town meeting with the change taking effect one year later.
Helen Mogan, a former Newburgh selectwoman who served in the 1990s and is now a member of The Fixers, said hiring someone now would be problematic.
“We don’t as a group think we should hire someone at all,” she said. “We’re afraid it’s going to cost too much to hire someone for such a short term. I think that’s a very bad steppingstone for us as a town.”
Mogan said she and the other concerned residents will continue their fight through any avenue available to them. In the short term, they have vowed that they will not pay their property taxes until just before the Oct. 1 deadline.
“I know of at least 10 households that will not be paying their taxes upfront,” said Mogan. “We’re angry. Why would we give them our money now?”