It was a long, cold winter and a longer, muddier spring.
No one knows that more than the residents of Freedom, a small Waldo County town that is currently mired in a recall effort aimed at bringing down two of its three selectmen. This mud season’s particularly bad road conditions were listed as one of the top reasons for the recall, according to some of those who would like to see longtime selectmen Steve Bennett and Ron Price voted out of office.
Residents will decide their fate through secret ballots cast on Tuesday, June 11, the same day as the school budget vote.
Laura Greeley said she signed the recall petitions because she is angry about the impassable roads. She runs a day care center at her home, where some of the children — including her own child — suffer from severe allergies. The roads have been getting so bad in the spring that emergency vehicles can’t travel on them, and that’s why she decided to take action.
“My main reason was, as I told the selectmen, their lack of concern and action for the safety of their residents,” she said.
But Bennett and Price, the selectmen singled out by the recall effort, said that the furor over the roads seems disproportionate.
“We did have to close one road down for awhile. We realize that we have to do something about it, and we’re working on a plan now to fix it,” Bennett said. “I don’t think that’s a reason to recall two out of three selectmen.”
Fifty-three of the town’s roughly 700 residents signed a petition accusing Bennett of repeated violation of the select board code of ethics and abuse of office of selectmen. For Price, 51 people signed a petition that accused him of violating the select board code of ethics, continued conflict of interest regarding town business decisions and actions, and abuse of the office of selectmen.
“I know Ron didn’t feel good about it at all and I didn’t either,” Bennett said of the recall petition. “You don’t do this job because you’re padding your own pocket. You don’t do this job because ‘Oh boy, I’m going to make a lot of money at it.’ You do this job because you want the town to grow and get better and improve. You do it because you have the right motives.”
Price said much the same.
“The reasons that they’ve listed on that petition, those things really hurt. Those things are false. There’s no proof of that,” he said. “When they come out and make those accusations, they hurt. It makes me fighting mad, to be truthful.”
Small town roiled by controversy
The recall effort feels particularly personal to Price, because Freedom boasts its own two-person public works department and his son, Travis Price, is its director. Town employees do their own road ditching, culvert replacement, plowing, sanding and even built the town’s salt and sand building.
The selectmen said the town saves money by not contracting the work out to others, but some residents disagree. They don’t think the town should run its own public works department in the first place and definitely don’t think Price’s son should be the director.
Ron Price doesn’t think this is fair criticism, because he did not participate in any of the negotiations to offer his son the job or to discuss his salary. The town paid Travis Price $56,712 in 2018, a sum that included his overtime and benefits, but did not include his reimbursement for mileage or for purchasing supplies or equipment for the job.
“There are people in the town that have sour grapes about it,” the selectman said. “In my opinion, the town is very, very lucky to have him. Never before have we had anybody who has developed a public works budget. Before, we always did it by the seat of our pants.”
Resident Bob Kanzler, who is in favor of recalling both selectmen, holds a different view.
“We have 26 miles of roads. They cannot fix the roads. Our public works department is not trained to do any of that,” he said, adding that he thinks Travis Price is paid too much. “He’s making outrageous wages. It’s just favoritism. Family favoritism.”
In addition to the unrest over the public works department, some in Freedom do not like that the town took out a lease to purchase an excavator and that residents voted last year at a special town meeting to spend $38,000 to purchase the derelict Skidgel property in the middle of town.
“They spend, spend, spend on our tax dollars,” Kanzler said. “Our money is not being spent wisely on what it needs to be spent on.”
Greeley said that she thinks fixing the roads should be the top priority, not these other matters.
“Those would be good and fine once we have roads that every resident in town can access to get to their houses,” she said.
But Bennett and Ron Price said that town officials have strived to keep the property tax rate as stable as they can and property taxes as low as possible. Purchasing the Skidgel property was a town decision, not one made by the selectmen alone, they said.
“We have proven we’re doing our roadwork and that sort of thing cheaper than any town around us,” Ron Price said.
Bennett said that the recall could have serious consequences for Freedom. He suspects that if he and Price are removed from office, the town will lose its public works department. As well, there are some questions about what would happen when the town is down to just one selectman, Brian Jones. It would take a couple of months before new selectmen could be elected, and right now, normal town business requires two selectmen to sign checks.
“The question is, what can that remaining selectman do?” Bennett asked. “I don’t know what would happen. I honestly don’t. We’ve made inquiries from an attorney, from the Maine Municipal Association and from Secretary of State Matt Dunlap. It’s costing us time and money. This will not be done without spending town taxes, I can tell you that.”
To him, the recall effort seems discouraging.
“It’s the world we live in today,” he said. “You can have a selectman removed because you don’t like the way they part their hair. It needs to change.”
Watch: Mainers help moose stuck in the mud