HAMPDEN, Maine — A town councilor who likened his treatment by town officials to tactics used by the “Gestapo” triggered a public confrontation this week that prompted the town manager to call for an end to the “craziness” she says is getting in the way of doing the work of the people.
At issue was an allegation reportedly made by a member of the Hampden Association of Landowners, or HALO, that an unidentified male town councilor had made a threatening or harassing call to the New England School of Communications, a division of Husson University.
Members of HALO have been critical of recent town actions, particularly when it comes to property rights. The group, which arose from the town’s effort to overhaul its 2010 comprehensive plan, remains active and has roughly 500 members, according to board Secretary Cynthia Philbrick.
HALO recently arranged, at its cost, to have video recordings made of all council and council committee meetings. The first recordings took place on March 3.
HALO President Lisa Carter said this week that the recording is new ground for the group and that as of yet, there are no specific plans for how they’ll be used. She did say that she saw no reason why HALO would not share the recordings, if no costs are incurred for producing copies.
On March 5, Town Manager Susan Lessard heard from Mayor Carol Duprey and her husband, Rep. Brian Duprey, that Carter had received a call from a NESCOM official saying that an irate caller claiming to be a Hampden town councilor had complained about the video recording.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of the issue, Lessard called Councilor William Shakespeare, who had recently opposed the mayor’s proposal to record and stream council committee meetings on the Internet. She said she was trying to head off a potentially messy situation. None of the other four male councilors were contacted.
Shortly afterward, she called NESCOM and learned no such call had been received, which Husson spokesman Eric Gordon confirmed Tuesday.
When Shakespeare arrived at the town office shortly after Lessard’s call, Lessard told him there had been a misunderstanding.
During a Town Council meeting on Monday night, Shakespeare said he had been falsely accused. He said that as he saw it, being the only councilor contacted amounted to an accusation, and a false one at that.
“By this accusation, voiced through the town manager, and through the mayor and her husband, they are alleging that I committed the crime of criminal threatening,” he said.
“I want this looked into legally by the authorities and want to know why it is allowed for town officials to accuse citizens and councilors of crimes without evidence, just like the Gestapo in Nazi Germany or Saddam Hussein in his death courts in Iraq, where the innocent who held different opinions than the dictators were done away with until no dissenting opinions remained,” he said.
Among his questions was: Did a HALO member have so much pull and influence over the town manager, the mayor and a state legislator “that they instantly believed her allegations” without any evidence?
Lessard fired back.
“I never accused you of anything,” she said. “I asked you a question and I asked you the question because the issue had been raised and believe it or not — and I know you don’t — I was trying to get ahead of this.
“The problem is this — I can’t find another word — craziness that is going on between the audience and members of this council is making managing this almost an impossibility,” she said. “I have always felt that I could call any councilor and ask them anything and it wasn’t to accuse them. It was to try to get ahead of one more catastrophe that makes us, as a group, look like idiots.
“As far as I’m concerned, folks, this has gone far enough. We have descended to a place where our agendas are comprised of who can poke who with a sharp stick. That is not conducive to good business in this town and people aren’t proud of us because we’re behaving that way,” Lessard said.
Afterward, Mayor Duprey said she never brought up Shakespeare’s name and did not contact police because she didn’t think a crime had occurred.
Carter said Wednesday that she received a phone call shortly before the March 3 meetings. She said the matter turned out to be a “non-issue” that has been blown out of proportion.
“What I was told is that an ‘irate’ male made a call to NESCOM regarding a student from NESCOM doing some recording for HALO,” she said. “I asked who the male was and was told that he didn’t identify himself. I went in a bit early to the meeting to see if all was well with the student and all was well. There was absolutely no issue. The meetings recorded were quick meetings without any issues at all, to my knowledge. Since then, I have been told that it was a mixup as to who called.
“I am heartsick at the untrue, hateful verbal attack HALO and its members were under on Monday night,” said Carter, who watched a recording of Monday’s meeting.
Monday’s meltdown was the latest volley in a series of conflicts that accelerated after the November elections, when the council’s composition changed, putting members who had been in the majority on most issues in the minority.
Rep. Duprey apologized to Lessard “for having to deal with this crap,” which he attributed, in part, to the recent power shift.
“It’s not an easy job that I do and it sure as heck is not an easy job that you do but it is embarrassing to watch you guys,” he said to Shakespeare and Councilor Thomas Brann, who also has been at odds with the council majority.
Former Mayor Janet Hughes also waded into the fray.
“I don’t mean to point fingers at anyone here but this isn’t working and there’s one agenda item after another and another from this side, that side,” she said. “Whatever happened to working together and respecting others’ opinions? I’ve always said every person in this town deserves to be represented and that means that there’ll always be differing opinions and it should be that way.”
Hughes said that the councilors should instead be focusing on pressing town matters, including a looming budget crunch, rezoning and codifying the town’s ordinances.
In response to Rep. Duprey’s remarks, Shakespeare said, “Was I irritated? Was I mad? Yes, I was mad and all I heard was HALO, HALO, HALO. … I wish HALO didn’t exist because I’d like this town council to get back to [town] business like we got [elected] by the citizens to do.”
Not helping matters is that Carter and Shakespeare are next door neighbors who have been feuding for years over property line and other issues, each have told the Bangor Daily News in separate conversations.
“For a Hampden town councilor to liken the town manager to a Nazi multiple times and issue a warning to the public that the Nazis are coming is sickening,” Carter said. “It was like watching a sick episode of ‘Fantasy Island.’ The only thing missing was the little man yelling, ‘de plane, de plane.’ I can only hope this embarrassing behavior stops immediately. [Neither] Sue Lessard nor anyone else deserves this kind of treatment.”