THORNDIKE, Maine — So far this winter, fires have consumed two old buildings in the tiny Waldo County village of Thorndike. One accidental conflagration in late December, which burned the Thorndike Congregational Church, caused the community to come together in solidarity and concern. But the second, an intentional burn of a debris pile left from the demolition of a former two-room schoolhouse which recently served as the town office, has seared a divide in this 890-person town.
In mid-January, when a group of residents tore down the old town office and burned the debris, it left a bitter taste in the mouths of some in town.
“It’s just devastating to a lot of people in town,” Anthony Brillard, a longtime resident who attended the 120-year-old George Washington School as a boy, said Thursday. “The townspeople were just heartbroken. Not all of them, but the people who were born and raised here.”
He sees the town’s decision to tear down and burn the building as unnecessary and even illegal, and wants answers about how it happened. Toward that end, he is leading a petition drive that aims to force Thorndike to do a “forensic town audit.”
But First Selectman Jim Bennett scoffed at Brillard’s claims, saying that when residents voted nearly five years ago to replace the town office instead of repairing it, it also meant that the old building could be demolished.
“It’s a total waste of the town’s money,” he said of the petition drive.
According to Bennett, the old schoolhouse was in poor condition and was irreparable. The floor of the records room, or vault, had caved in, he said. The deputy town clerk was getting nosebleeds, and tests showed there were five different types of mold in the building.
“Nobody could breathe good in there,” he said.
At last year’s annual town meeting in March, voters approved having the town spend $50,000 from its surplus funds account, borrowing $200,000 and using two grants to build a new town office.
“It got built real fast, and we’re under budget,” Bennett said.
Brillard, a builder, disagreed with Bennett’s version of the story. The old building wasn’t in great shape, he said, but it was still part of the value of the town and had potential to be rehabilitated.
“Structurally, that building was sound, no matter what Jim Bennett said,” he said.
The new office, which is open part-time during the week, was ready to be moved into on Jan. 7. Good thing, Bennett said, because the town’s insurer had given them until January to be out of the old building.
Patty Pendergast, who moved to Thorndike fairly recently, said that her biggest concern is what she sees as a lack of transparency in town government. She was part of a last-minute petition drive to save the old town hall by asking the town to vote on the question of its demolition.
But Bennett said that when the petition was given to the selectboard, the three members turned it over to an attorney.
“He said, ‘forget it,'” Bennett recounted.
Town officials weren’t the only ones to seek legal counsel. Pendergast and Brillard have retained attorney Kristin Collins of the Belfast firm Kelly & Associates.
“I’m taking him to court,” Brillard said of Bennett. “They tore that down without permission from the town. That’s illegal to do. He said he had permission. I say he did not. He never gave voters a choice to tear it down.”
Bennett said that there’s nothing to discuss on the matter at the upcoming annual town meeting.
“The building’s gone. Why would we discuss that? We can’t bring it back,” he said.
By the meeting, he expects to release figures that show how much the construction of the new town office cost — and how much under budget it came in.
For months, he said, interested Thorndike residents could see a drawing of the new town office that showed where the old town office had become part of the parking lot.
“They waited right up until a day or two before [the demolition], and then they hired a lawyer,” he said.
But Pendergast and Brillard believe that people in Thorndike deserve more answers. They would like to examine the town’s account books closely, and say that as residents, they should have that chance.
“We want our town back,” Brillard said. “We want whoever is managing our town to be open with the citizens. Not just say, ‘It’s none of your business.'”