PROSPECT, Maine — Last Friday, members of the Maine Army National Guard held a special event on the grassy courtyard of Fort Knox State Historic Site. The 80 or so attendees wore dress uniforms for a formal dinner ceremony called Dining-In, and toasted their fallen comrades who have been lost over the last decade in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The soldiers lifted beer bottles high, despite a state rule prohibiting the consumption of alcohol at state parks and historic sites. Fort Knox was closed to the public for the private event well ahead of sunset, when the park closes from May to October.
What was meant to be an upbeat event sparked concern among some critics of the Friends of Fort Knox, the nonprofit group that started running the popular park last spring when the state made the decision to privatize its day-to-day management.
Officials from both the state and the friends group said despite the criticism, last week’s event was not tarnished.
“It was a really, really good thing to have the national guard hold their Dining-In at Fort Knox,” John Bott of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry said in a phone message left with the BDN on Thursday. “It’s my understanding it was a tremendous success. We think it was great and appropriate to hold it at Fort Knox.”
However, Gordon Williamson, a former member of the Friends of Fort Knox, is less concerned with the particulars of the Maine Army National Guard’s event, and more worried about greater questions around privatization and loss of taxpayer control.
“What really disturbs me is that the Friends of Fort Knox seem to think they have carte blanche to operate with total disregard for the laws of our state, their lease agreement with the [State of Maine Department of Conservation Bureau of Parks and Lands], and the trust of the citizenry which they pledged to serve,” he said Thursday in an email.
Reached by phone Thursday, Leon Seymour, the executive director of the Friends of Fort Knox, deflected comments to the Maine Army National Guard. He offered only a terse comment.
“That would be a horrible thing, to honor the people who have died for the country,” he said.
Peter Rogers, the communications director for the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management said organizers have been working with the Friends of Fort Knox for months to plan the dinner, which is a historical tradition for the service branch.
“We reached out to them because we figured it was a really amazing place to hold a Dining-In,” he said.
Organizers explained to the Friends group that the event would entail alcohol for toasts.
“They said absolutely, that looks great,” Rogers said. “We had permission from the Friends of Fort Knox with full knowledge and consent of what we were doing.”
However, last Friday, when the soldiers in their dress blues were already on the road to Fort Knox and the caterers had begun setting up, the organizers “got the first inclination that there was a problem,” he said. They learned that there was concern about whether alcohol would or should be allowed at the state park.
“Because the national guard is not a political organization, we don’t know about a lot of the issues that were out there,” Rogers said. “It’s unfortunate that in this case, that’s what happened. If we had known from the beginning that this was the policy, we would have looked for a different location.”
Carol Weston, president of the Friends of Fort Knox board of directors, said that the event in question was private and “very unique.” She said that alcohol can be allowed at certain state parks on occasion with special state permission, although the Friends of Fort Knox did not precisely obtain that.
The Maine department that oversees management of the fort had sent a letter shortly before the event to the friends group reiterating the “no alcohol” rule, Weston said, adding that there are times rangers use discretion enforcing that rule.
Although Weston was not there, she said that no members of the public were “herded out” of the park so that the private event could take place. In general, she said, the Friends group works hard for the fort.
“We are solidly united in preserving this fort and encouraging people to come,” she said. “There are a few people who appear to be looking for something wrong … if someone has a personal vendetta or personal issues with someone on the board, they shouldn’t use the fort and the national guard as pawns in their personal issue.”
Last July, another special event held at the fort drew criticism from some who felt the 2012 Economic Freedom Festival, sponsored by the Maine chapter of the conservative policy group Americans For Prosperity, was too political. Weston serves as the Maine state director for that advocacy group.
At that time, she said that there was nothing improper about holding the festival and a $100-per-plate sunset dinner at the fort.
“It fits in with our goal of bringing more people there to introduce them to this beautiful site,” Weston said then.
But Williamson said it’s not okay to bend the management rules at the fort for special groups, and wondered this week if Commissioner Walt Whitcomb of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry will hold Weston and Seymour “accountable for their actions.”
“Certainly Maine State Attorney General Janet Mills should hold them responsible for breaking Maine law,” he said.