Bath to disclose discussions in controversial sale to investigator; recall petitioners suspend campaign
BATH, Maine — The City Council voted 6-2 Wednesday to reverse its earlier decision not to disclose what transpired in a closed-door discussion of a sale of city-owned property.
The council will tell an investigator what happened during a Feb. 6 executive session concerning the sale of the Mid Coast Center for Higher Education, which was completed in May.
As a result, Michael Wischkaemper of York Street and Larry Scott of Washington Street — who with several others have sharply criticized the way the property was sold — have suspended their campaign to recall five city councilors.
The council’s Aug. 21 decision not to waive the confidentiality of the executive session immediately prompted the campaign, which Scott said had drawn hundreds of signatures by the next week.
Wischkaemper noted after Wednesday’s meeting that the city charter does not set a time limit on collection of recall signatures.
“We think it’s a sign of good faith that they intend to move forward with a real investigation by an independent investigator who’s going to be given all the facts, and with that understanding we’re going to suspend collecting signatures,” he said.
Petitions had been circulated for the recall of council Chairman Bernard Wyman and Councilors Andrew Winglass, Meadow Rue Merrill, Sean Paulhus and Carolyn Lockwood. Councilors Mari Eosco, Leverett Mitchell and Steve Brackett, who are up for re-election, were not included. Councilor David Sinclair, who has called for the council to publicly answer questions about the sale and opposed the Aug. 21 decision, was not a recall target.
The council on April 17 unanimously approved the sale of the former hospital on Park Street. Bath had owned the property for about a decade before selling it to Robert Smith of Phippsburg for nearly $800,000, despite its assessed value of $6.5 million, according to the city’s online database. The vote drew no public comment that night.
Wischkaemper and Scott have said they do not oppose the sale, but think the city failed to practice due diligence in setting a price, and did not sell the building in an appropriate way.
The City Council had unanimously supported an independent investigation, but some councilors opposed allowing the executive session to be discussed, citing concerns about the precedent that might set. Waiving the confidentiality of such sessions had never been considered in the 36 years City Solicitor Roger Therriault has worked with the city, he said.
The council voted 6-2 Wednesday to waive the confidentiality, with Brackett and Paulhus remaining opposed. Lockwood noted that there are no documents from the Feb. 6 meeting to reveal — only councilors’ recollections of what transpired.
“This whole situation, I know, has weighed on us all,” said Eosco, who moved for the waiver. “It’s certainly affected us publicly and privately, and it’s been a terrible process to have to live through.”
She said her decision came with much thought, and was not for those angry at the council, but rather for the citizens of Bath. She noted that discussion of the Feb. 6 meeting would be only with the investigator, and that “this is not for us to talk about with people on the street.”
Having solicited advice from the Maine Municipal Association and the state attorney general’s office on the appointment of an investigator, and with several suggestions in hand, the council voted unanimously Wednesday to have Therriault send a request for proposals to qualified candidates. Submissions will then be brought to the council for consideration.
Earlier in the meeting the City Council unanimously opposed waiving an appraisal for the E.L. Huse Memorial School, a city-owned building on Andrews Street that has been up for sale for five months at $190,000, and which recently received an offer.
The council’s decision followed a new policy that governs the sale of city-owned property, which the panel adopted Aug. 7 in the wake of the Mid Coast Center controversy.
But Wischkaemper was not opposed to an appraisal being waived in the Huse School’s case, given its length of time on the market, in contrast to the Mid Coast Center, which City Manager Bill Giroux has said was listed with a real estate agent for six days before the city received a full-value offer. Part of the offer was that the property would not be advertised until the City Council had an opportunity, soon afterward, to consider the matter, the manager said.
“I would have no objection if you chose not to have an appraisal of this,” Wischkaemper said. He noted that some properties clearly have little value, and that given the high price of an appraisal, “it doesn’t make sense to exercise that ability to have an appraisal where the cost doesn’t give us a decent benefit.”
The length of time without an offer, and the $4,000 appraisal expense cited for the property, made an appraisal not worth it, Wischkaemper said. He also noted that if the school were now put up for sale for the first time, he might look at the matter differently.
The Huse School is assessed at $3.4 million, according to the city’s online assessing database.
“This is a very similar scenario as the [former] hospital,” Lockwood said, “again, a building we felt … was not a building in very good shape. … I would feel very uncomfortable moving forward without an appraisal, [and] getting a professional opinion.”
After the regular meeting the City Council held a workshop on a tax increment financing agreement being proposed by Bath Iron Works. BIW wants to build a more than 51,000-square-foot outfitting hall, which will be connected to the south end of the existing Ultra Hall, and to construct a two-bay blast and paint building and a combined boiler and compressor building.
The shipyard, which received site plan approvals Tuesday for the projects but still needs contract rezoning approval from the city for the outfitting hall, proposes a 25-year TIF through which the shipyard and city would split tax revenues generated by that building.
The TIF, against which a petition drive gathered 369 signatures last month, could return again to the City Council for further discussion later this month.