The chairman of the Orrington Board of Selectmen — who, along with another selectman, is the target of a recall effort — stepped down from the lead position Tuesday night in an effort to heal a rift that has consumed the community in recent months.
Keith Bowden said Tuesday at a special selectmen’s meeting that he had become a “lightning rod” for controversy as the 3,700-person town considered — and rejected — a proposal to build a $3.5 million public safety building and as two town managers resigned in the course of six months.
Board members elected Selectman Allan Snell as chairman on Bowden’s recommendation. Bowden, who was elected to the board in June 2014 and became chairman three years later, will remain on the board.
The recall effort, launched last week after the Jan. 29 resignation of interim Town Manager Andrew Fish, cited Bowden and Selectman Michael Curtis’ perceived opposition to the proposed $3.5 million public safety building that voters rejected in a 255-234 vote on Dec. 4.
Bowden cited that vote as the main reason the community is so divided in a three-page written statement distributed at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Unfortunately, it is that well attended special town meeting vote that has divided the town into a camp of taxpayers with reasonable concerns as to the cost and size of the public safety building and a vocal camp of individuals allied with the fire and rescue department that are upset with the majority that voted not to go with the expensive, inflexible architectural firm that offered the original design and cost figure to the town,” he said.
Bowden also disputed accusations that he and Curtis had been secretive about their questioning of the design and cost of the proposed public safety building. He said they both questioned the cost at the first informational meeting in September.
Curtis has declined to comment on the recall effort.
Selectmen formed a new committee to consider less expensive options for a public safety building after that vote. Bowden said that he and Curtis have attended every meeting. The committee next meets at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the town office.
Referring to the town managers’ resignations, Bowden said: “I do not know of any overt or covert efforts by anyone on the board to force them out.”
Paul White, who was a member of the board in the mid-2000s, resigned as town manager in July citing conflicts with Bowden. Fish, a former deputy town clerk who had served as interim town manager since Aug. 6, quit Jan. 29, citing conflicts with two selectmen in his resignation letter.
He began working as finance director in Holden on Feb. 1, according to Holden Town Manager Benjamin Breadmore. He did not mention in his resignation letter that he had another job lined up.
Bowden said Tuesday that Fish told the board in a Dec. 24 letter that he wanted to return to his previous position with the town after serving as interim town manager for six months.
Orrington was in the process of interviewing candidates for the town manager position when Fish resigned. Selectmen will interview two finalists on Saturday — one from out of state and one who lives in Maine, Bowden said Tuesday.
To initiate the recall, five residents had to form a committee and request petitions from Town Clerk Susan Carson. That happened Friday, Carson said.
The petitioners are Michelle Harmon, Jim Goody, Chad Bean, Janice Deans and Timothy Kenney and they are the only people who may ask residents to sign a petition, according to Carson. Residents also may request to sign a copy at the town office.
None of them attended Tuesday’s meeting but have used an unofficial community Facebook page to communicate with residents about the effort.
The petitioners did not respond to requests for comment on whether Bowden’s resignation would impact the recall effort.
They have 30 days to gather 206 valid signatures from Orrington voters — 10 percent of the residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election. When and if the five residents submit petitions to Carson, she would have seven days to validate them and send them on to the board of selectmen.
Under state law, the recall votes must be held within 30 days, and they would require support from two-thirds of those voting to be successful. If the recall is successful, a special election to fill vacant select board seats must be held within 30 days after that.
Bowden and Curtis both could run in the special election or any other municipal election after that, Carson said.