LIMESTONE, Maine — The last meeting of the Limestone Board of Selectpeople sent waves of discontent reverberating through the community when the board voted to terminate the town fire chief’s contract as of Oct. 15. As of Tuesday afternoon the fire chief’s job has since been saved, two selectpeople have resigned from their elected positions and a recall petition is circulating through the community to remove the remaining three board members.
During a special meeting of the selectpeople on Aug. 20, the board reversed its decision to terminate Fire Chief Paul Durepo as the town’s fire chief and, instead, hire a new chief for $10,000, as estimated by selectperson Jesse Philbrick.
The controversial motion to remove the fire chief was made during the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Aug. 15 — just one month after the board tried to remove the Limestone Police Chief from office.
During the Aug. 15 meeting, Philbrick reported that the contract Limestone has with Fort Fairfield for the services of Fire Chief Paul Durepo lapsed two years ago. Philbrick then offered a means of cost savings.
“We’re currently paying $21,100 for Paul’s services, and I feel that we can hire a chief for around [$10,000], hire our own chief with our department. I’d like to have you fellows just think on it,” Philbrick said. “The budget committee, they want us to save money, and this is a way to do it. You can save yourselves $11,000 pretty easy. I think I’m going to make a motion that we look into this and ought to terminate the contract as of Sept. 1 and if we can save ourselves some money, save it.”
Selectperson Gary O’Neal seconded the motion, and asked Philbrick “if that does go through, do you have any plans made how we take care of that decision after that time?”
Philbrick said he thought “someone would step up,” and conceded to O’Neal’s request that the date be extended to Oct. 1 instead of Sept. 1.
At that point in the meeting, selectperson Tom Devoe interjected.
“This is just for discussion, right?” he asked Philbrick.
Philbrick replied that he was making a motion.
“I understood it a little different when we started,” Devoe said.
As the board began discussing logistics regarding the two other parties involved in the fire chief’s contract — the Loring Development Authority and the town of Fort Fairfield — the issue of equipment entered the conversation.
Selectperson Danny Gahagan asked whether the town would have to begin looking for a new fire truck, as the truck Limestone currently uses belongs to Fort Fairfield. Gahagan suggested that the board may have to call an emergency meeting of the budget committee.
“It’s Fort Fairfield’s truck,” Gahagan said. “If you discontinue their services, they’re going to take their truck and go home.”
“That’s been the whole trouble,” Philbrick replied. “[Chief Durepo] has things tied up so bad that we don’t have any control of nothing here.”
Devoe suggested that approving the motion would at least get the involved parties together to discuss the lapsed contract for the fire chief.
Devoe, O’Neal and Philbrick voted in favor of terminating the fire chief’s contract as of Oct. 15; Gahagan opposed the motion, and Pelletier abstained from the vote, which he clarified on Monday evening was because he questioned the legality of the motion.
Durepo, who’d been given no notice that his contract was in question, didn’t attend the Aug. 15 meeting.
“[Town Manager Donna Bernier] called me after the selectpeople’s meeting and said ‘Paul, where were you?’ I told her I was home watching television,” Durepo said. Bernier then informed Durepo that he’d been fired.
Despite the intent of the board, Durepo said he was very confident he wouldn’t lose his job.
“Because of community support, for one thing, but the second thing is that the selectpeople, again, in one swoop, broke half the labor laws of this country,” he said.
On Aug. 16, the morning following the meeting, Gahagan submitted his resignation.
On Aug. 17, Pelletier submitted his resignation as well; Devoe verbally stated his intent to resign the same day, but later rescinded.
While both Gahagan and Pelletier have submitted resignations, they remain selectpeople until their resignations have been approved by the board during the next regularly scheduled meeting, which will be 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 5, at the municipal building.
Though the board reversed its decision to terminate the fire chief’s contract during a special meeting held on Aug. 20, petitions were widely circulated around town on Aug. 17 calling for the recall of Pelletier, O’Neal, Devoe and Philbrick.
Assisting with the growing movement to recall the entire board are Gahagan and Durepo.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Durepo estimated that the group had collected about 170 signatures on each of four petitions. A recall requires signatures equal to 25 percent of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election in Limestone, or about 160 votes in this case.
While some of the signatures already have been submitted to the town office for verification, the petitions are still circulating to ensure that the number of legitimate signatures has been met — and Durepo says collecting signatures is pretty easy to do.
“The consensus is that we need a completely new board of selectmen — 100 percent — and that the people in town are sick and tired of the local small-town politics with people getting elected only so they can fulfill their own vendettas against other citizens, and especially town employees,” Durepo said. “It’s the consensus of the citizens that we’d be better off with no board than the board we have — that’s what I’m hearing.”
Pelletier submitted his resignation on Friday and said that his biggest influence to do so was the Aug. 15 board meeting when the motion was approved to terminate the fire chief’s contract.
“I abstained because I did not feel that the motion was legal, not in the sense that a motion was made, but in the sense of what the motion was trying to do,” Pelletier said. “We just went through it with the police chief and it’s almost exactly the same.”
During the July 18 meeting of the Limestone Board of Selectpeople, the board unanimously approved the reappointment of every department head except for Limestone’s Police Chief Stacey Mahan.
After legal opinions were obtained by both the town and the police chief, however, the board reversed its decision two weeks later and, on Aug. 1, approved Mahan as head of the Police Department during their regularly scheduled meeting.
The special meeting on Aug. 20 marked the second time this month that the board has rescinded the termination of a department head.
“My big concerns are my employees,” expressed Town Manager Bernier. “I have employees that are very nervous right now, obviously with the last couple of actions taken by the board. I have a couple of them that are very nervous, thinking ‘I might be next,’ so in all of this turmoil, I may lose valued employees.”
“Turmoil” is a word Durepo also used to describe the situation in Limestone.
“The turmoil that this board has created, [is] not only with the town manager, the police chief and the fire chief, it’s all the departments and the citizens,” Durepo said, describing his current concerns for the town. “They’ve created this turmoil pitting citizens against citizens and nothing can be accomplished. Everything you try to do, someone is there trying to stop you from moving forward with something positive.”
The feeling that the board has been operating on personal agendas and vendettas is a concern for Gahagan.
“That was a big reason I resigned in the first place,” he said. “Once you put your own personal needs or your own personal vendettas before the town’s business, then you stop doing the town’s business — you’re working for yourself and you’re not working for the citizens that elected you.”
He described how over the past few months, the town has been looking to change ambulance services from Crown Ambulance to the Caribou Fire and Ambulance Department. Gahagan’s son is currently employed by Crown.
“When that [ambulance contract] was batted around, I knew that my son would probably be laid off,” Gahagan described. “But then I had to look at the citizens of Limestone and realize that we’re going to get a better service here, and sometimes you have to take a step back and look at the big picture.”
If the two current resignations are approved, replacing the vacated selectpeople seats would require a nomination process followed by an election.
Should the remaining three board members be removed through the recall petition, the Limestone Board of Selectpeople would enter uncharted territory for the town.
The voters first approved the town’s recall ordinance on June 8, 2010.
“That’s why in the history of the town it’s never been done,” Bernier said. “Prior to that, we didn’t have a recall provision.”
Under the ordinance, the recall would initiate a townwide vote, where residents would be asked, “Shall [selectperson’s name] be recalled from the Limestone Board of Selectpeople?”
Bernier said he didn’t know what course of action to take to get the board back up to its five-person capacity should any selectperson be recalled.
“I’d have to get a legal opinion on that,” she said. “At this point, I don’t know.”
Regardless, Gahagan and Durepo are adamant that a new board is needed.
Going forward, Gahagan said he would like to see Limestone’s registered voters sign the recall petitions.
“I would like to see [O’Neal and Philbrick] removed from office because I truly believe that they’re not serving the best interests of the town,” Gahagan said on Friday after hearing that Devoe was submitting his resignation — which Devoe later rescinded.
“They’re only serving their own personal interests and I’d like to see a fresher board come on board that’s interested in serving for the benefit of the citizens of Limestone.”
During the special selectpeople’s meeting on Aug. 20, Gahagan asked for answers regarding Philbrick’s initial motion to remove the fire chief.
“You need to explain yourself,” Gahagan told Philbrick.
Though still a selectperson until his resignation has been accepted, Gahagan chose not to sit with the board and instead opted to stand next to over half a dozen firefighters sporting their firefighter-blue uniforms.
“If you’re going to be in this discussion, you need to come sit over here,” Philbrick said, gesturing to Gahagan’s normal seat, “not in the audience.”
“My thing was to save some money,” Philbrick said, before Selectperson Chair Jimmy Pelletier interjected:
“On the agenda tonight, there’s no public debate; we’re here to solve an issue that was brought up. I think we all understand sitting here how the public feels, otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here. There wouldn’t be petitions going around town,” he said.
“Just the fact that there’s a recall going around to boot you guys out, that’s the first time in the history of Limestone,” Gagahan said. “You guys have to be more judgmental of your actions.”
“I thought we weren’t supposed to have a discussion,” said O’Neal, directing his speech toward Pelletier.
“Oh, so we’re not supposed to speak now Gary?” Gahagan said. “You’ll deny us our freedom of speech?”
“Danny, I’m going by what’s on this agenda.” O’Neal answered.
“Gary, you’ve been going by your own agenda ever since you got on the board,” Gahagan said.
“All I want to do is get this over tonight,” Pelletier said, ending the dialogue between Gahagan and O’Neal and pushing the motion to reconsider the Aug. 15 decision to terminate the fire chief contract. Of the four-man board, Pelletier, Philbrick and Devoe voted in favor of reconsidering the motion; O’Neal opposed.
The selectpeople then voted to reverse their decision to terminate the contract; again, Pelletier, Philbrick and Devoe voted in favor with O’Neal opposing.
From start to finish, the special meeting of the board lasted under four minutes.