FALMOUTH, Maine — Although a former Town Council candidate says he is not planning legal action against the town, his recent campaign of Freedom of Access Act requests has officials on alert.
Bryan Dench finished last in a four-way race for two seats on the council in June. His previously published opinions on gay rights and abortion became part of the campaign discussion, and he now apparently suspects Town Councilor Chris Orestis, who was not up for re-election, was part of an organized campaign for his defeat.
“I don’t know if [Dench is] considering [legal action] or not, technically he is currently in legal action,” Orestis said. “I do believe that the message was sent to him that if he wants to persist in sending FOAA requests looking for something that isn’t there, he would have to file a formal lawsuit.
“Bryan Dench has been hitting me personally with FOAA requests, personally holding me responsible for his loss,” Orestis continued. “He is operating under the assumption that I was the mastermind of a huge conspiracy campaign to bring out into the public his anti-gay views.”
Dench issued his first FOAA request to Orestis on May 28, more than a week before the June 6 election, seeking “correspondence, notes, email, text messages or cell phone or voicemail messages from April 11, 2012, to the date of your response.”
He asked specifically for anything that could be considered a public record to or from former Councilor Cathy Breen; Glen Brand; town Democratic Committee Chairwoman Pamela Fenrich, and council candidate Karen Farber, who was later elected.
Dench submitted a second request for similar information on June 27, excluding anything provided to him in his original request.
“I think he’s under the impression that I had a sophisticated campaign to thwart his campaign to get elected to the Town Council around the anti-gay views,” Orestis said. “[He is] looking at me [as the] spearhead, the guy who’s pulling all the stings, when that’s not the case.”
All four of the people named in the request said Orestis did not urge them to speak out against Dench.
Breen, who wrote a letter to The Forecaster about Dench’s opinion of same-sex marriage, said Orestis did not ask her to write the letter.
“All I did was point out a letter where [Dench] went out of his way to state [his views] very publicly, in the state’s largest newspaper,” she said.
Brand and Farber both said that they never spoke about the election with Orestis at all. Only Fenrich said that she had spoken with Orestis about the election, but that he never asked her to speak out against Dench.
“Bryan Dench lost the election, decisively. He needs to man up and get over it and move on,” Fenrich said. “He should take responsibility for what he wrote. It’s in the public record and he should take responsibility for that.”
In a letter sent to Orestis, Town Manager Nathan Poore and Assistant Town Manager Amy Lamontagne, Dench pointed to two different email strings and Facebook posts as his major evidence. He also cited a letter to The Forecaster that Orestis published on May 7.
“Mr. Orestis chose from the beginning to make his political view a matter of public business by repeatedly communicating about my candidacy in his capacity as a Town Councilor,” Dench wrote. “In fact, he injected himself into the campaign, apparently believing that the own could not get by without the benefit of his views about the election from the vantage point of almost one year of experience in office.”
He said that in addition to trying to use his position on the council to influence the vote, Orestis also made attempts to discredit him based on his personal beliefs on issues “which the Town Council cannot and will not address,” such as abortion and gay marriage.
In the letter he also renewed his request for all of the public records in Orestis’ possession and called for Orestis, not Poore, to provide the records.
Town policy is that FOAA requests are forwarded to the town manager, who serves as the public access officer. All requests directed to councilors or other town officials are forwarded to Poore for processing.
Dench, managing partner of the Skelton Taintor & Abbott law firm in Auburn, took issue with his request going through Poore instead of Orestis, asserting that the policy does not comply with Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.
“I have not made a request to the Town, but rather to Mr. Chris Orestis in his capacity as a member of the Town Council,” Dench wrote. “In that capacity he is subject to the Freedom of Access Act and has an independent duty to comply with my requests. … The town’s policy cannot limit or delegate the independent legal duty Mr. Orestis has by statute.”
Town attorney William Plouffe said this week that the town’s policy does comply with the Freedom of Access Act and that Poore just serves as the gatherer of information.
“[Poore] serves, under the town policy, as a conduit of information that he gathers from public officials who may be in possession of public records,” Plouffe said. “The town has put this system in place to manage FOAA requests and has found it necessary to put this in place because it has received so many.”
Poore said that Dench currently has everything of public record in the town’s possession.
“From the town’s perspective, we’ve provided Bryan with everything that we have in our possession that he requested,” he said.
Orestis maintains that he was not behind any sort of campaign against Dench, and that he has been following protocol by allowing Poore to handle the FOAA requests.
He also said that there was no need to lead a campaign against Dench’s candidacy.
“The citizens of this town, particularly some of the activists, they knew about that stuff the moment his name came up,” he said. “The same day he took out papers people were talking about it and somehow he got it in his mind that no one would have talked about it.”
Dench declined to comment for this story, other than to say he will not sue the town.
Dench or his firm have in the past represented Sun Media Group, parent company of The Forecaster.