April 26, 2018
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Rockland emails show community development director felt pressured over grant funding

By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — A series of emails between the former Rockland Community Development director, the city manager and the state show no smoking gun behind the director’s sudden resignation earlier this month.

But they do show that Audrey Lovering felt pressured to persuade the governor to release bond money for a major downtown revitalization project.

Lovering resigned Oct. 10 and was paid $21,666 as four months’ severance. The city also agreed to pay for her health insurance through Jan. 31 and $2,000 for her legal costs.

Her last day on the job was Oct. 1.

City Manager James Smith has declined to comment on her resignation, saying it was a personnel matter.

Responding to a Freedom of Access request by the Bangor Daily News, the city has provided emails exchanged since Aug. 1 between the city and Lovering and between Lovering and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. The city attorney said that any emails that involve complaints about her job performance, if there were any, would not be released because personnel matters are confidential under state law.

One theme in the final few weeks she was on the job was a letter that Smith wanted her to write to the state concerning Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to release bond money approved for 11 downtown projects across the state, including one in Rockland.

Rockland was informed last year by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development that the city had been approved for a $400,000 grant to perform work in the municipal parking lot behind the Thorndike apartment complex on Main Street.

The public improvements would have included new sidewalks, curbing, lighting and an extension of the Harbor Trail in the rear of the Thorndike. The owners of the Thorndike were going to match that with $3 million in private investment for the structure, which has 49 apartments on upper floors and retail space on the Main Street level.

In June, however, LePage said he would not release the money because he wanted the state to get its spending under control.

The Maine Department of Economic and Community Development was working with Lovering on behalf of the city to write a letter to the governor requesting release of the funds.

On Sept. 11, Smith sent an email to Lovering: “What is the status of the DECD letter to the Governor? I would like to get this out ASAP.”

Lovering then sent emails to DECD about a draft letter she had sent to DECD on Sept. 5 in which she asked the state if it was appropriate to send to the governor.

“I’m starting to receive some heat as to when James [Smith] can sign the letter and it be put in front of the governor,” stated an email from Lovering to Maine Community Development Director Deborah Johnson on Sept. 12.

There was no email provided by the city that showed a response from Johnson. Johnson said on Wednesday, however, that she sent an email and telephoned Lovering immediately after that email was received. Johnson advised Lovering to take out a section in the letter requesting a meeting with the governor and then resend the letter.

On Sept. 24, Lovering sent a followup email to Johnson: “Can I have James sign the letter and return it to you to send to the Governor? I’m being pressured to make this happen asap.”

Johnson said Wednesday that she responded to that email as well, but the city did not provide a copy of that response either.

Smith said Tuesday he was not pressuring Lovering about the letter but simply was inquiring about its status.

Smith, however, sent an email to Tammy Knight of DECD on Oct. 19 seeking clarification on the availability of the money.

An email reply from Knight to Smith on Monday stated: “The DECD is recommending that communities submit a request to the Governor, via our Commissioner, seeking the potential release of Communities for Maine’s Future bonds prior to June 2015. It is entirely up to the community to decide whether or not to utilize local funds in anticipation of the release of the bond funds. In the event that Rockland should decide to move forward with the project using TIF funding, it would be allowable to reimburse these expenses with bond funds, should they become available.”

Smith said Tuesday that this is a policy decision that would need to be made by the councilors and he plans to bring it to their attention next month.

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