MADAWASKA, Maine — The Board of Selectmen voted Thursday night to deny a petition to remove Madawaska’s town manager, calling it “not valid” and “contrary to the law.”
The Board of Selectmen held a planned executive session at the beginning of the meeting to discuss “personnel matters,” then addressed the more than two dozen taxpayers attending regarding the tax rate and the “bullying” of town employees.
Acknowledging the hardship the property tax increase from $20.20 to 23.20 per $1,000 of assessed value necessary to offset the lower valuation of Twin Rivers Paper Co. will cause residents, board Chairman Don Chasse then turned his attention to what he termed a “smear campaign” against Town Manager Gary Picard and Finance Director Dana Gendreau.
“They have been falsely accused of all types of inappropriate behavior. We are here tonight to let everyone know that these accusations are completely not true. Their [a small group of residents] main objective is to try to discredit two employees who work very hard for this community each and every day. [The employees] have been going through hell because of these vicious lies being spread on social media,” Chasse read from a letter to residents from the Board of Selectmen.
Vice Chairman Douglas Cyr then switched topics to the petitions spearheaded by Aaron Cyr to remove the town manager from office and to suspend the finance director from her duties. The petitions were submitted to the town clerk Thursday morning with 244 signatures, of which 206 were verified.
Douglas Cyr asked Aaron Cyr if he had any proof or information that Picard had not acted on the wishes of the board. Aaron Cyr said that since he expected the petition would have been placed on the agenda, not brought up during an executive session and voted on immediately after, he did not have his information with him.
Douglas Cyr asked if Aaron Cyr had any proof of an inappropriate relationship or action on Picard’s part. When Aaron Cyr said that he had never accused any town employee of those actions, Douglas Cyr asked if he had any evidence that Picard was not forthright or telling the truth, to which Aaron Cyr responded, “Yes, I do.”
As Aaron Cyr tried to explain what he remembered regarding a loan the town took out in 2018 for a sewer project, Douglas Cyr interrupted him.
“This board decides the figures,” he said. “It’s not Gary.”
Madawaska’s sewer project is funded through an $8 million U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant and loan awarded in 2017. Part of that money was a grant of $1.8 million, with the remaining $6.1 million coming from a Water and Waste Disposal Direct Loan with a 2 percent interest rate.
Picard explained Thursday that “nothing in the sewer department loan has anything to do with the town’s tax commitment or any other appropriated or unappropriated funds, surplus or undesignated fund. Those are two separate operating budgets.”
Selectman Dave Morin further explained that the town manager is the treasurer.
“He’s been given the responsibility to take care of the money, that it goes into the right account at the right time. All the decisions about the size of the bill and where it goes has been made by this board, by the finance board, and also by the school board,” Morin said.
Morin added that those budgets were decided and voted on at the town meeting as well.
Chasse said the Board of Selectmen signs off on the treasurer’s warrants. He then read a statement from RHR Smith & Co., an independent auditor that has examined the town books since at least 2015, that said “we see no evidence of missing or unexplained monies/fund balances, etc.”
The auditor offered to meet with the selectmen and the town to discuss details, which it described as “confusing but explainable.” It also requested from petitioners documentation supporting their allegations of wrongdoing.
Douglas Cyr said he did not see anything that was “damaging” in the actions of the town manager. He then addressed Aaron Cyr and the petitions directly.
“I’d really like you to reconsider this petition, I’d like you to pick it up and tear it up, because it’s not going to go anywhere,” Douglas Cyr said. “As we’re talking here, we’re seeing the town changing in front of our eyes. You’re seeing what’s happening with the downtown development. You’re seeing some of the millions of dollars that are coming through in grants. You’re seeing buildings that are coming down. You’re going to see the downtown change in the matter of a year, or so — the shopping center here, that’s going to change completely. They’re aggressively chasing business to come here. I mean I haven’t seen the town move like this in the last 5, 10, 15 years, and yet we’re ready to throw [Picard] out the door because you think that there’s something going on between employees. It doesn’t make any sense.
“If you were involved with what’s happening in this town, and it won’t take long, in the matter of a year or two you’re going to see some changes. [Picard’s] aggressive. Is he cold and shrewd sometimes? Well, when you’ve been pushed against the wall like he has a few times, yeah, that can happen,” Cyr said.
A letter from the town’s attorney read during the meeting said the petition “improperly asks the board to call a special town meeting whereupon the voters could decide the employment fate of both the Town Manager and the Finance Director.” Although town counsel said it was not legal for the board to accept the petition, Chasse called for a vote to deny the petition based on the legal opinion “that the petition is not valid, and is contrary to the law.”
In an attempt to clear the “cyberbullying” accusations against Aaron Cyr before the vote, board member Laurie Gagnon said it was not Cyr who was posting the “disgusting” content on Facebook.
Douglas Cyr made the motion to deny the petition, which Morin seconded. All members of the board, except for Gagnon who abstained, voted in favor.
“I abstained because I had been told by a lawyer [not associated with the town] that the voters had a right to request this to be put on a ballot,” Gagnon said Saturday. “I do believe now that [that lawyer] was mistaken. The legal opinion we had at the meeting said that it was illegal but went on to add opinions that I wasn’t sure I understood. I in no way think anyone is guilty of anything. I just was unsure that we were legally doing the right thing, and if I don’t understand something, I usually ask questions until I do. I decided to step back. It had nothing to do with my feelings.”
After the vote Thursday, Chasse stepped down as chairman of the Board of Selectmen to speak as a resident and taxpayer to the people of the town, turning over the meeting to Douglas Cyr, the vice chairman.
“I have a short statement I want to make from Don Chasse,” Chasse said.
“The use of social media in a vulgar and dirty way, in my opinion, is what I call cyberbullying,” he said. “They may say that they have protection of freedom of speech, but I say that freedom of speech should not be used to spread vicious lies about people that hurt individuals and families … bullying in any form is wrong and should never be tolerated.”
Aaron Cyr said Friday that “the taxpayers are being bullied by the board. The board of selectmen have an agenda and the public voice is of no importance.”
“Seeing the board’s reaction to protect the town manager, if anyone would be blamed or thrown under the bus, it would be the finance director,” he said.
“Projecting the cyberbullying on me was ridiculous,” he said. “The motive was to turn the person, who’s job is being questioned, into a victim.”