BANGOR — City councilors passed an order Monday night to publicly admonish one of their own for recently tape-recording a conversation between himself and three high-ranking municipal employees without their knowledge or consent.
The censure of Hal Wheeler, believed to be the first in more than 20 years, was pushed by City Council Chairman Richard Stone and supported by his colleagues.
“Councilor Wheeler lost focus on what was right,” Stone said at Monday’s regular council meeting.
“Oftentimes when we get anxious and critical of others, the window through which we view life becomes foggy. This lack of clarity has hurt our relationship with the city staff and the citizens of Bangor.”
According to Stone, Wheeler met last week with interim City Manager Bob Farrar, Finance Director Debbie Cyr and Solicitor Norman Heitmann to discuss the city’s tenuous relationship with the American Folk Festival. During that meeting, Wheeler concealed an audio recorder on his person to secretly record the conversation, which was not a violation of any state or local law but violated his ethical obligations as a councilor, according to Stone.
“To his credit, [Councilor Wheeler] has recognized that he made a serious mistake,” Stone said.
Wheeler, who has long been a fixture in municipal government, addressed the council and the community on Monday.
“I accept the judgment of the council on my method of obtaining information,” he said. “I can assure you that it was for my own use only, to help make an objective decision about the relationship between the city and the American Folk Festival.
“There was never any intention on my part to implicate anyone in any wrongdoing or to embarrass anyone. I allowed my frustration over the lack of full communication between the parties to override my better judgment and I must accept full responsibility for that.”
Councilors recently have discussed the city’s role in financing the American Folk Festival. Wheeler has been critical of that partnership largely because the festival has built up nearly $300,000 in debt to the city over a five-year period. He also has questioned the city’s commitment of tens of thousands of dollars worth of in-kind services.
The three city staff members involved in last week’s incident all declined to comment and no one Monday divulged how they found out that Wheeler had tape-recorded the conversation.
Stone said his comments spoke for the rest of the council.
“As elected officials, we carry the public’s trust,” Stone said. “We have an obligation to keep our house in order.”
A censure is rare in Bangor politics. Heitmann said he has not seen a censure during his 14-year tenure. Farrar could not recall a censure during the 20-plus years that he has been a municipal employee.
Perhaps the closest call to a censure came in 1993, when Stone, during his first run as city councilor, was threatened with censure after he inexplicably missed several council meetings. That issue blew over without any action.
In early 2008, then Councilor Richard Greene was arrested and charged with forging then City Manager Ed Barrett’s signature on an invoice. While out on bail, Greene was caught stealing more than $130 worth of merchandise from the Hannaford Supermarket on Broadway. Before he could be censured, though, Greene stepped down from the council.
And late last year, some councilors suggested a censure of Councilor Geoff Gratwick after he went public with his disgust over the way the council handled the dismissal of Barrett. Again, that didn’t result in a vote.
Wheeler, who previously served on the City Council from 1983 to 1986 and on the city’s planning board from 2000 to 2006, admitted Monday that he seriously considered resigning from the council because of his actions.
“But the issues and tasks that are ahead have convinced me that to leave the council shorthanded would be a disservice to the process of city government,” he said. “I hope that this council and the citizens who have given me the privilege to serve them will forgive my lapse in judgment.”