An embarrassing truth: Bangor and Brewer can’t get along

Posted Sept. 10, 2010, at 8:56 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — They are saying all the right things publicly, but city leaders in the neighboring communities of Bangor and Brewer admit privately that they are embarrassed about their seeming inability to work together.

The latest example came this week when a joint citizen advisory committee that was formed to look for collaborative, cost-saving opportunities between the cities disbanded.

The committee, which included five community members from Bangor, five from Brewer and the city manager and finance director of each city, spent more than six months sifting through departmental budgets on both sides of the Penobscot River.

The committee concluded earlier this week that there were no obvious areas for savings. An outside consultant even agreed with that assessment.

“When there is a will, there is a way,” Bangor City Councilor David Nealley said. “There clearly was not a complete buy-in on both sides.”

“I don’t see it as a waste of time,” countered Brewer City Councilor Larry Doughty. “It gave those people [on the committee] a good chance to learn the inner workings of the two cities. I don’t think it’s a matter of will.”

Bangor Councilor Rick Bronson, who has perspectives on both sides because he was Brewer’s fire chief for many years, agreed that any turf battles and fiefdoms between the cities exist higher up the food chain.

Nealley agreed.

“There are a few people fanning the flames; we don’t need to name them,” he said. “But we have them in Bangor and Brewer. Some people are just more reluctant to change.”

Doughty said any talk of turf wars is “hogwash.”

“That’s all right in sports, but I don’t think there’s too much to it in politics,” he said. “I just think everyone loves their community.”

However, Doughty has taken jabs at Bangor on his blog, which Bangor Councilor Pat Blanchette was quick to point out.

“He tells outright lies on his blog and gets away with it,” she said. “But he’ll get his due one day.”

A recent blog post from Doughty calls out Bangor for having gone nearly one full year without a full-time city manager.

“Yesterday, at a local high school event, I got one City Father’s attention, when I asked who is the new manager. His response: ‘We have three of them,’” Doughty wrote. “What does one derive from that response? Perhaps, just perhaps the anointed one, didn’t make the dinner a happy one. Morale is a concern in Bangor amongst the employee’s, as they hope for a new boss. It’s been almost a year now.”

The citizen committee still plans to write a final report on its findings, which will be presented to both councils later this year, but it appears the two cities are not in a rush to hold hands.

Blanchette, who opposed the creation of the joint citizen committee in the first place, said she was surprised to hear the panel disbanded. She concluded that the last six months of scrutiny were probably unnecessary.

“Both of our city budgets are not fat,” she said. “This was probably the same conclusion our two managers could have come to in an hour. I was hoping they would come up with something. I don’t mind being proved wrong.”

The reluctance in Bangor and Brewer seems to live at the council level, where entrenched personalities and rhetoric often drive the debate.

Bangor City Council Chairman Richard Stone said individuals who send up flares of rhetoric only create distractions.

Added Bronson: “Talking about it is a lose-lose proposition. But there clearly wasn’t a buy-in on both sides on this.”

Brewer Councilor Arthur Verow didn’t consider the committee to be a failure but said the result was probably inevitable.

“It didn’t cost us any money, only time,” he said. “Any major changes are difficult. Cities are used to operating at a certain level and to suggest change makes people uncomfortable. People like what they have.”

Both interim Bangor City Manager Bob Farrar and Brewer City Manager Steve Bost agreed that the two cities work well together at the municipal department level. Other neighboring communities, such as Lewiston and Auburn, also have had some success working together.

Regardless of the lack of initiative this time, Nealley said he believes the cities will need to work together in the future simply as a matter of financial necessity.

“If we don’t start thinking of ourselves as sister cities, I don’t think it’s good for the region,” he said.

Stone agreed and hopes the final report generated by the committee serves as the groundwork for future discussions.

“I still have confidence that it’s a good idea to do these things,” he said. “This was a first step, and you don’t always end with roaring success.”

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