BERWICK, Maine — Residents and selectmen are raising ethical concerns after a selectman’s wife bought a foreclosed house at less than 10 percent of its assessed value.
The house, at 9 Rochester St., was foreclosed on after the owner, Abraham Schlosberg, failed to pay more than $7,000 in taxes. Schlosberg, who now lives in Peabody, Mass., is confined to a wheelchair after suffering several heart attacks and strokes since the death of his wife, according to his attorney.
After a sealed bid process, which received notice in the Foster’s Daily Democrat, on the town’s website and at the Town Hall, Laurie Chambers, wife of selectman Joe Chambers, came away with the property after entering the only bid.
“It is a blatant abuse of power to bid $20,000 to purchase a property assessed” so highly, said Brian Barrington, Schlosberg’s attorney. “The Vice Chairman should be serving the interests of the Town and not getting a windfall.”
The bid was approved by the Board of Selectmen at its June 7 meeting by a vote of 3-1, with Chambers abstaining. By a request from a group of concerned citizens, a reconsideration of the vote was placed on the agenda for the June 21 selectmen’s meeting. The reconsideration, after much debate, failed to be approved in a 2-2 vote.
For Eleanor Murphy, a selectman who voted against the original bid proposal and for the reconsideration of the June 7 vote, the transaction doesn’t sit well with her.
“This doesn’t pass the straight face test,” said Murphy.
Murphy, as well as citizens who participated in the public comment section following the reconsideration vote, cite the Berwick Selectmen’s own code of ethics, adopted in April 2012, which states: “Purchase and sales of real estate which might be regarded as speculation for quick profit ought to be avoided, particularly in situations where the Town official or Town employee may have inside or advance information as a result of his/her office or employment with the Town.”
Thomas Lavigne and Peg Wheeler, two former selectmen, worry that the sale might have run afoul of state law as well, if enough information was available to Chambers and his wife that the sale could no longer be considered to be a sealed bidding process.
MRSA 30A, states, “no municipal officer shall, while holding municipal office, acquire from that municipality any interest in real estate acquired by that municipality on account of nonpayment of taxes, unless such sale occurs by sealed bid.”
Tuesday afternoon, Joe Chambers said he did not receive inside information concerning his wife’s acquisition of the property.
Town Manager Keith Trefethen maintains the bidding process was completed through sealed bid and that the board did not break any laws.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Lavigne had filed a complaint through the Berwick Police Department, which has since been forwarded to the York County District Attorney for review.
A call to the York County DA went unanswered Tuesday afternoon.
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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.