Columbia Falls town office closed after administrative assistant resigns

Posted July 13, 2011, at 8:49 p.m.

COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — Muriel Smith, who has been the administrative assistant and town clerk of this coastal town for 13 years, said that Wednesday was one of the worst days of her life.

“I didn’t go to work today,” she said emotionally. Smith, 65, has resigned her position, saying she was driven from her job because of the insistent interference of a small group of residents who have been labeled “The Concerned Citizens.”

A couple of those residents interviewed Wednesday, however, said they are concerned, active participants in town affairs and have not asked for any information they are not legally entitled to have.

“Enough is enough,” Smith said. “No matter what anyone in the town office — the staff, the selectmen — no matter what anyone does, it is wrong in their estimation. [The Concerned Citizens] disagree with anything and everything.”

Smith said the town of 560 people is being “torn apart and split by the actions of just a half dozen people.”

Selectman Alan Grant admitted Wednesday that the board is feeling “a little bit attacked. I guess they don’t trust us. You know, in small town politics if you don’t like someone, you try to get them out.”

Smith said members of the citizenry have been micromanaging town business for three to four years. They have asked almost daily for copies of all ongoing town records, financial statements, warrants, meeting minutes and other communications, she said.

“They never came right out and said ‘Muriel, you are stealing,’ but you get the feeling that is what they mean,” Smith said. “I hope they are happy now. They’ve shut the whole town down,” she said.

Grant said there does not seem to be a single incident or board decision that triggered what Smith called micromanagement by the group. “I don’t know what they want,” he said. “If I knew what they wanted, we could deal with it.”

Grace Falzarano, a former selectman, is one of the residents identified as belonging to “The Concerned Citizens.” She said Wednesday that she is a bookkeeper and that she is asking for nothing more from the town staff than what she must be accountable for at her own job.

“A town needs to be accountable to its citizens,” she said.

John Tibbetts, chairman of the board-appointed Selectmen’s Municipal Advisory Committee, of which Falzarano also is a member, said that group’s goal has been to advise the board, seek and initiate grants and provide options to develop town assets.

He said none of the information asked for by any of the citizens falls outside the scope of Maine’s Right To Know law and that all of the information is very easy for staff to obtain and copy.

Lenora Weaver, however, who was the town’s treasurer for 11 years until she resigned last year, agrees with Smith’s assessment.

“This whole mess has been a rocky road for our little town, pitting neighbor against neighbor and splitting families as only politics can do,” Weaver said Wednesday afternoon. “This constant nitpicking and persecution needs to be brought under control.” She said town employees are being bullied and leaving their positions because of harassment and abuse.

“The Concerned Citizens Committee quoted the Right to Know law and demanded copy after copy of warrants, bank statements, financial records and anything else they could think of,” Weaver said. The demand grew so great that Weaver said Smith spent one morning each week just making copies for the group. Weaver said the group called for a special audit in 2010 because it believed money from the sale of town trash bags was missing. Weaver said the audit showed no missing money and no out of the ordinary bookkeeping methods.

Tibbetts said Smith’s resignation is bittersweet.

“I am sad to think I will no longer be able to avail myself of Muriel’s vast store of knowledge which I have to say she has always, and under all circumstances, willingly shared with me,” Tibbetts said. “I am also glad that she has chosen a course that will ease her level of stress and enable her to enjoy more fully her retirement years.”

Grant said the town office, which had been operating three days a week, will remain closed until a qualified person has been hired for Smith’s position. “We have the right to appoint a clerk until the next annual town meeting,” Smith said. Before that happens, he said, any resident needing services, such as wedding licenses or vehicle registrations, may go to the town of Addison.

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