SANGERVILLE, Maine — A gathering of some budget committee members at a private home before the annual town meeting prompted Sangerville Town Manager Michelle Dumoulin to solicit advice on the legality of the meeting.
In a letter to the board, attorney Thad Zmistowski of Eaton Peabody of Bangor said it is a violation of Maine’s Freedom of Access statute when three or more members of a committee, appointed by selectmen, meet informally on private property to discuss their committee’s charge without notice to the public.
“A quorum requirement would provide an opportunity for great mischief as a series of clandestine sub-quorum committee meetings could carefully be orchestrated, making a later properly noticed meeting and vote, a sham,” Zmistowski wrote.
Zmistowski said that based on present statutes of case law, he believed a violation of the Freedom of Access Act did in fact occur when budget committee members met privately. “I therefore recommend that meetings of this type be avoided in the future,” he wrote.
“This isn’t to point a finger at anybody, this is to be a learning tool for our committees,” Selectmen Lance Burgess said Thursday of the attorney’s advice.
Newly elected Selectman Brent Randall said he had discussed the matter with the Maine Municipal Association and had received a different response. “As far as I’m concerned, that was a waste of money,” he said Thursday.
Randall also quizzed Dumoulin on the proposed demolition of the former Abbie Fowler School.
The town received two engineering estimates for the removal of hazardous materials from the building that differed by $360,000. The higher quote of up to $400,000, which included the removal of polychlorinated biphenyl compounds, or PCBs, in the caulking around the windows, was submitted by Ransom Environmental of Portland. The firm was contracted through the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council, and its work was funded by a brownfields assessment grant.
“It seems that the PCEDC and Ransom [process] kind of took on a life of its own,” Burgess said. “We were considering applying for a brownfields grant but we never applied for the grant and for some reason PCEDC just ran with it without any authorization from the board.”
Dumoulin also claimed the PCEDC had no authority to engage the Portland firm. The town contracted with Steve Wintle of Facility Management Group of Dexter, who submitted a quote for the hazardous removal of up to $40,000 that excluded the testing for PCBs in the caulking. Both the town manager and Wintle claim the regulations do not require the testing of the PCBs in caulking. The town, however, received a certified letter from the Environmental Protection Agency that advised that if the building is demolished, any caulk containing PCBs must be removed and disposed of in a licensed facility.
The Department of Environmental Protection has been asked by Dumoulin for some flexibility with the issue. She said the problems with the project are many. “I have very serious concerns about activity that happened over there,” she said.
Dumoulin is challenging the testing Ransom did and she alleged Thursday that the firm violated its sampling procedures, hinting that legal action may be taken.
Nick Sabatine, Ransom vice president, said last month that the claims being bandied about by Sangerville officials were unfounded and that much of the company’s work was taken out of context. He said Sangerville owed the firm an apology. Sabatine said the firm did everything in accordance with accepted protocols and industry standard care. Both the DEP and EPA agreed with Ransom’s findings and conclusions, he said.
Randall said he had checked with the DEP and EPA and was advised the PCBs in the caulking must be addressed. ‘’You think we just can ignore the fact that the PCBs are there?’’ he asked.
In response, Dumoulin said, “So you’ve been acting independently of the board? I don’t know about this, Brent.’’
Selectman Burgess also took exception to Randall’s actions. “’As a member of the board you cannot operate independently as a private citizen,” he said.
Randall said he was acting as a resident when he made the calls. He said the town should be working with PCEDC to get the brownfields grant for the abatement rather than risk having the town fund the full abatement costs. “I think that we’re headed down a path that that school is going to wind up costing us $150,000 or more and that you might want to get a lawyer involved in this,” he said.
Selectman Tom Carone disagreed. “Doesn’t it seem like something is inappropriate when you have an estimate that’s 10 times more than a previous estimate?” he asked. “Something doesn’t sound right.”
“Everybody sitting in this room that pays taxes in this county, where do you think that $400,000 is coming from? It’s coming out of everybody’s pocket here, including mine, a little bit at a time,’’ Carone said. “And I think it’s time to put a stop to this gravy train, as I call it, as far as this grant program goes. There’s no such thing as free money.’’