Recall election ousts three of five selectmen in Berwick

Posted Feb. 14, 2012, at 5:34 a.m.

BERWICK, Maine — Three members of the Board of Selectmen were recalled from their elected positions Monday evening, kicking into motion what felt like a new political era to townspeople.

Chairman Jim Ramsey received 964 votes in favor of his recall and 204 votes against his recall. Vice Chair Joe Chambers received 972 votes in favor of his recall and 196 votes against his recall. And, Selectman Marcia Elton received 942 votes in favor of her recall and 228 against her recall. In total, close to 1,170 people voted in the recall election, with 41 of those votes being cast by newly registered voters.

“Berwick deserves it,” said resident Jodi Wright. “We are good, honest people that have prevailed.”

Wright said she’s been working nonstop for the last four days trying to garner interest in the election and support for the recall of the three members.

Unhappiness in town toward the three members in particular reached an all-time high in the early summer of 2011 when the board voted 3-1 to accept a bid of $20,000 from Laurie Chambers, the wife of Joe Chambers, for the 9 Rochester St. apartment building. The property was valued over $200,000.

Along with a general distaste of the ethical implications of the sale, many residents felt the sale was in violation not only of Maine state law but of the board’s own ethics policy.

A formal complaint was filed with the Maine Attorney General’s Office at the end of June 2011 by several residents who believed the sale broke the law by compromising the “sealed bid” nature of the sale. Residents felt Chambers had used inside information privy to him as a selectman to help his wife purchase the property for a low price. Residents also discovered discrepancies on the lease for the sale of the property to Laurie Chambers that indicated notarization occurred by the town clerk at a different time than when she witnessed the selectmen’s signatures on the deed.

In the midst of the AG investigation, the board of selectmen voted 3-2 to enter into a 75-year lease with Bateman Partners Inc. for the redevelopment of the old Berwick High School. The board initially gathered for a special town meeting at the beginning of August 2011 to vote on whether to enter into a 99-year lease with Bateman Partners Inc. The townspeople overwhelmingly voted this agreement down. However, after the town voted, the board decided to uphold a former decision by residents made two years earlier to allow the board to enter into a 75-year lease for the rehabilitation.

Many of the residents who voted for the 75-year lease agreement in 2009 were present at the August 2011 special town meeting and said the reason they voted for the project was because the redevelopment was originally advertised as senior housing, not as low- to medium-income housing as it was slated currently. Many residents felt the project would put stress on town resources and the already overcrowded school district.

Some residents filed suit against the town in an effort to reverse the lease but didn’t have enough funds to follow through and the suit was dropped in December 2011.

As a way to put actions behind their words in a more organized way, frustrated residents developed and submitted a recall ordinance to the town for review in October 2011. The ordinance allowed any resident to petition the recall of any elected or appointed town official. The board felt there were faults in the petitioned recall ordinance, but it voted to place a different, more legally acceptable recall ordinance on the election ballot.

Also in October 2011, the Maine AG’s Office ruled that Chambers did not use inside information in the purchasing of the property. Although the decision seemed to satisfy Chambers, Ramsey and Elton, many residents still felt the sale was unethical and a violation of the board’s ethics policy, even though the three members disagreed.

In an overwhelming vote, the recall ordinance was approved in the Nov. 2 election, and within a week petitions were drafted to recall Ramsey, Chambers and Elton.

In a meeting on Dec. 31, the board voted 3-2 to not set the date of the recall election, forcing Town Clerk Judy Buckman to set the date of Feb. 13 for the board. The decision of the three to ignore the petitions and refuse the setting of an election date further angered the already frustrated residents of the town.

As the votes were announced recalling the three members, the town hall erupted with cheers from the 20 or so residents gathered. While Selectmen Bob Crichton and Eleanor Murphy were present for the results, the three members up for recall were not in attendance.

Resident Tom Lavigne, who helped spearhed the movement, said he hoped the enthusiasm of the group that pushed for the recall would be carried into the future toward a better Berwick.

“Because that’s what it was all about in the end,” said Lavigne.

© 2012 the Foster’s Daily Democrat

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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