NEWBURGH, Maine — Turmoil and controversy that have gripped this small Penobscot County town continued Thursday with the sudden resignations of all but one of the town office’s employees.
A routine Board of Selectmen workshop ceded to drama when Town Manager Rick Briggs, Assistant Town Clerk Jill Gilman and Town Clerk Lois Libby, who has worked in the Newburgh town office for 32 years, all resigned effective immediately. Part-time Deputy Treasurer Sue Lessard, who took her position on an interim basis several months ago, did not resign but is also technically no longer an employee because she was Briggs’ appointee.
Board of Selectman Chairman Mike Burns told the Bangor Daily News that Lessard said during a telephone conversation Thursday night that she would “help out” with the town’s finances, though Burns said what capacity she might serve in was unclear.
Selectmen summoned a Penobscot County sheriff’s deputy, who watched as Briggs packed up his office. There were no heated confrontations, though Burns told Briggs and the deputy that Briggs is not allowed in the Newburgh town office again unless accompanied by a selectman.
The resignations follow a complete changeover on the Board of Selectmen since Leonard Belcher and Leona Smith resigned in March after Selectman Stanley Smith lost his bid for re-election to Burns.
“We’re in the same boat now as we were when the two selectmen quit,” Burns said to the BDN after Thursday’s resignations. “The town has just taken another step backwards.”
Like former selectmen Belcher and Leona Smith, the three employees who stepped down Thursday cited a caustic atmosphere created by a group of concerned citizens called the Fixers. Burns is one of the founding members of the Fixers, a loosely affiliated cadre who have been combing through town finances for more than a year and challenging elected and appointed town officials on a range of issues. Their scrutiny intensified after the revelation in March 2010 that former Deputy Treasurer Cindy Dunton had embezzled $200,000 from town coffers beginning in 2006. Dunton, who discussed her crimes during an interview with the BDN last month, has pleaded guilty to felony theft by unauthorized taking and faces a prison term of up to 10 years. Her sentencing is scheduled for July 1 at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor.
“There has been a recent change in the tone of government in Newburgh, therefore I must regrettably submit this resignation,” wrote Assistant Clerk Gilman, who was hired a few months ago.
Briggs, who was hired by the former selectmen in September 2010, did not address the Fixers directly in his resignation letter and balked at the subject during an interview with the BDN, but he said there has been a pervasive tension since the election of the new selectmen.
“I want to take the high road,” he said Thursday as selectmen continued their meeting in the next room and he prepared to clean out his office. “I knew coming into this that it wasn’t going to be long-term, but I had hoped I’d be able to stay a little longer.”
Town Clerk Lois Libby characterized her resignation as a retirement. Her friends and family applauded boisterously after her resignation letter was read by Briggs to selectmen and members of the public.
“I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the town for a wonderful career that has spanned half my life,” wrote Libby in her letter. “My retirement will take effect immediately.”
Libby told the Bangor Daily News that the past year has been among the most stressful — and sometimes hurtful — of her career.
“I’ve taken a lot of abuse,” said Libby. “People have said that I’m no better than Cindy Dunton. There are some mean-spirited people in this town.”
Libby said the new board, which she said is mostly aligned with the Fixers, has not treated her with respect.
“I just don’t feel that they trust us,” she said. “They’re very suspicious and I think they’ve lost faith in us.”
Libby said just a few days ago, a resident whom she didn’t identify accused Briggs of sneaking town property into his car — which Libby said turned out to be Christmas lights and decorations that belonged to Briggs. Briggs would not confirm or deny Libby’s account, but said there have been “several inappropriate events” in recent weeks.
With the help of some residents, including Belcher, Briggs cleaned out his office immediately after resigning, taking several pieces of furniture, personal effects and pictures from the walls. Briggs offered in his resignation letter to help the town meet pressing financial obligations, such as payroll, but it was unclear Thursday whether the board would exercise that option.
Burns said he thought Briggs would have been out of a job soon one way or another.
“We’ve been getting a lot of resistance from the town manager,” said Burns.
Burns said he was unsure whether the town office will open on Tuesday, which is its next scheduled day of business. He said the board’s first priority is to find an interim town manager and clerk.
The board’s next meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at the town office.
Christopher Yountz, who maintains the Fixers’ web site, said he doesn’t understand why anyone would quit because of his group’s work.
“I don’t know why they blame us,” he said. “We were just asking for financial data and we got no answers. If we hadn’t spoken up, Cindy Dunton would still be rolling money out the front door. All we’re concerned about is the finances.”
Others, including former Selectman Belcher, have challenged the notion that the Fixers uncovered Dunton’s embezzlement, claiming instead that the misdeeds were discovered by the board on the eve of the March 2010 town meeting.
Fixers member Helen Mogan, who has been among the most boisterous critics of town officials, continued those criticisms Thursday.
“This is a good thing,” she said. “We needed to clean the house and we have cleaned this house. We will fix it. We will continue to operate as a town.”