HAMPDEN, Maine — A contentious debate during a workshop session on courtesy and decorum resulted in one councilor walking out, leaving the Town Council without a quorum and unable to have a meeting Monday night.
Shelby Wright grew frustrated with the tone of Monday’s finance committee meeting while debating proposed rules regarding cellphone and computer use as well as mandatory participation in training programs for first-time councilors.
“I left the meeting because I was discouraged by the tone and direction I saw it taking,” said Wright. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get even the most basic functions of Town Council business accomplished at these meetings.”
Wright and Councilor Kristen Hornbrook, who exchanged words before Wright left, both said they wouldn’t call it an argument.
“We were talking about a section in the new rules proposing limits on cellphone usage because it’s poor manners and distracting to use one during council business, and Kristen was protesting and interrupting people as they were talking,” said Councilor Tom Brann. “Kristen kept insisting on dominating the floor and talking about it being her First Amendment rights.”
“The only thing I can tell you is it was during discussion of proposed council rules. I don’t recall her saying anything as far as discussion,” said Hornbrook. “I don’t know what precipitated it, but it was not an argument between the two of us.”
With Councilor Jeremy Williams out of town and Councilor Andre Cushing attending to business in Carmel, the other five councilors — Hornbrook, Wright, Brann, Jean Lawlis and Janet Hughes — needed to be present to form a quorum and conduct council business.
Wright decided to leave about 25 minutes into the council’s finance committee meeting, which began at 5:30 p.m. The council meeting was scheduled to start at 7 p.m.
“Councilor Wright exchanged words with Councilor Hornbrook and Councilor Wright left the finance meeting upset,” said Hughes, who is also the town’s mayor. “We were doing a review and update of council rules that we’ve been doing before the last several council meetings.”
The lack of a meeting puts the council behind the eight ball as it heads into a crucial period of the year which will be dominated by town budget discussion and negotiations.
“The council has had some struggles with councilors refusing to come to meetings, or people busy with work and vacations. Are we behind? Yes, we are behind. Significantly? No, but we are a little behind,” said Hughes. “The lack of a quorum today put us back. Some of these items have been on the agenda for three straight council meetings now.”
It also further delays an already behind-schedule effort to replace longtime Town Manager Sue Lessard, who announced her resignation in August and agreed to stay on in a part-time capacity through 2011 to ease the transition to a new manager.
“The council is very split on the candidates we chose as finalists, and the first candidate we chose to talk with didn’t accept our offer,” said Hughes.
The last time the council met, Feb. 6, a vote was expected on the finalist, but no action was taken.
“At the last meeting, we didn’t have a quorum. We spent more than an hour waiting for a quorum and during that time, things didn’t go well, and the candidate decided not to entertain the offer of working for the town,” Hughes said. “He didn’t elaborate on a reason for his withdrawal as a candidate, but I think it was more from a general frustration with the process.”
Hughes and Brann both said they hope the full council will vote on a new town manager next week.
“The current finalist has requested to meet with the full council and that hasn’t occurred in the last month for various reasons, so I’ve requested we meet with him Monday or Wednesday next week,” Hughes said.
Correction: An early version of this story incorrectly reported Councilor Andre Cushing, who was absent, as being in Augusta. He was actually attending to business in Carmel. As a point of clarification, the reporter writing about the committee meeting was present for the scheduled start of the Town Council meeting but not for the previous finance committee meeting.