As a resident taxpayer of Columbia Falls who previously held elective office as a selectman, assessor chairman, school board member, planning board chairman and town meeting moderator, I’ve retained an interest in government at all levels.
Our 2010 town report said $1,000 had been appropriated during the past year for “legal expenses,” leaving a balance of $3,183, and selectmen would request an additional $3,000 be raised at our March 22, 2011, town meeting.
My personal interest was aroused due to past experiences with town officials that led to legal costs for me and the towns involved. I paid twice; once for my own legal expenses, and again in taxes that I paid to the towns for their legal expenses.
I assumed that the reason for requesting $3,000 for the legal account would be cleared up at town meeting. No one asked, the measure was quickly moved, seconded and passed, with no discussion, and I had missed my opportunity.
I was surprised to learn later that the town of Columbia Falls had initiated a lawsuit against another resident taxpayer, Ms. Pamela Johnstone, who owned The Old Hotel property that abutted the former elementary school property that has been turned over to the town of Columbia Falls. The lawsuit involves a right-of-way in Ms. Johnstone’s deed that may or may not be the actual Shipyard Road, so-called.
At this year’s budget meeting we learned that another $5,000 was going to be requested for the legal account at our 2012 town meeting on March 20.
Although I heard no explanation on the thinking and reasoning that led to the selectmen bringing this lawsuit, I was told there had been newspaper reports, that I apparently missed, and the selectmen were only looking out for the town’s interest. Plus, they could not “duke it out” with Ms. Johnstone, which left them with no other choice than to bring the lawsuit. I guess that all made perfect sense to them. However, one of the selectmen later told me that they might have been given bad advice; and Ms. Johnstone might also have been given bad advice.
It did not surprise me to be subpoenaed as a witness for the recent hearing in the Washington County Superior Court on May 30, because of my 40-plus years of involvement directly and indirectly with The Old Hotel property and its occupants. I was more than willing to testify to help resolve the matter, and maybe save the taxpayers further expense.
I also have a strong interest in law. The judge must hand down a decision based on law, intent and some English grammar, a difficult job that either side can then appeal to the law court, which really gets expensive. A truly win-win situation for any attorney, as the late Mr. Tibbetts told me, reminded him of a cartoon where there was a cow with one man pulling on the horns as another man pulled on the tail, while an attorney sitting on the stool was milking away.
Selectmen in any community who wish to initiate a lawsuit should bring it to a special town meeting, where they could then explain to those who must pay the bills what their thinking and reasoning is for initiating a lawsuit.
Why would any small town government want to begin a lawsuit with no known final cost and no known final outcome without first taking it to the taxpayers for a vote, as they do nearly all other money issues?
Ms. Johnstone is a hard-working, cross-country truck driver who is currently doing a remarkable restoration job on The Old Hotel directly across the street from the famous Ruggles House. She understands my neutrality in this matter, though I question the wisdom of it not being taken to a special town meeting, if the selectmen were convinced that court was the only way.
Should the judge not decide for the town, and the selectmen wish to continue with an appeal in which more money will have to be raised, I would call a special town meeting, if the selectmen won’t.
Once this matter is settled, a certificate of appreciation is in order from the town to Ms. Johnstone for all her efforts to restore a historic building in the center of Columbia Falls, a community that will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2013. Like the original settlers who moved here from away, Ms. Johnstone and her father also chose Columbia Falls as home.
Richard N. Bedard is a resident of Columbia Falls.