Bath council to seek advice from state before hiring investigator over sale of $6.5 million property for $800,000

By Beth Brogan, BDN Staff
Posted Aug. 21, 2013, at 9:14 p.m.

BATH, Maine — The Bath City Council will seek input from the Maine attorney general’s office and the Maine Municipal Association before selecting an independent investigator to examine the city’s sale of the old Bath Memorial Hospital building.

At a special meeting Wednesday, councilors debated how best to select that investigator, and even who would make that choice, given that the council itself and city staff are the subjects of the investigation. They eventually voted unanimously to seek input into how other communities have conducted similar investigations.

The city’s sale of the building that now houses the MidCoast Center for Higher Education, University College, Providence Service Corp. of Maine and the Mid Coast Medical Group has been the subject of much scrutiny since May, when it was purchased by Bob Smith of Phippsburg for $799,000. The property is assessed at $6.5 million.

At the time, the Bath city manager said the building had only recently become profitable and that the city had been notified that “most of the major tenants there were going to be leaving.” Tenants have confirmed that they plan to relocate or are evaluating their presence in the building.

But Bath residents Larry Scott and Michael Wischkaemper objected to the sale price and the process of the sale. They argued that the council never agreed in public session to list the building for sale, and that it was never listed on the multiple listing service.

At a July workshop, councilors said they were comfortable with their decision and declined to answer questions about the sale.

But facing continued criticism, earlier this month they opted to hire an independent investigator to examine the sale.

Beginning the conversation with suggestions of particular attorneys, councilors soon began debating how to find an impartial investigator.

Councilor Carolyn Lockwood said the council must “avoid any perceived conflict of interest,” adding, “If we’re the ones being investigated, how are we going to choose [the investigator]?”

Some councilors proposed advertising to solicit proposals for the scope of work and cost of an investigator, while others supported asking the municipal association for input.

But Councilor David Sinclair objected, saying the association “represents almost exclusively municipalities,” and might not be impartial.

Wischkaemper himself offered to assist in selecting an investigator, and said that he has collected so much information on the issue that he could help “reduce substantially the amount of work” an investigator would be required to complete.

But councilors deferred any decision on the selection process until they receive a response from the Maine attorney general’s office and the Maine Municipal Association.

Town solicitor Roger Therriault will draft the letter and submit it for councilors’ approval. They plan to discuss the selection process and how to move forward at a regular council meeting on Sept. 4.

Also on Wednesday, councilors voted 7-1 against making public discussions about the sale of the old hospital held during a Feb. 6 executive session. They cited concerns about confidentiality with private entities and about setting a precedent.

“Executive session is a priviledge we hold to allow us to discuss private information that is not available to the public,” said Councilor Andy Winglass.

Therriault told the council that in the 36 years he has represented the city, a council has never waived executive session.

Sinclair — who cast the sole vote to waive executive session — argued that criticism of the city’s sale of the hospital has become “a matter of sufficient gravity” that the council should make public those conversations.

“If we had responded in a timely fashion [to questions about the sale], I doubt we’d be having this discussion … but we didn’t,” he said.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/08/21/news/midcoast/bath-city-council-to-seek-advice-from-attorney-general-before-hiring-independent-investigator/ printed on September 17, 2014