BATH — The City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to investigate whether the city was involved with a letter sent in support of the McMann Field artificial turf project that voters ultimately rejected.
Council discussion of the matter followed the referendum vote the day before, where Bath residents voted 1,522 to 861 against the city borrowing up to $300,000 to help fund the turf field. The vote overturned a 4-3 council decision in February.
Jackie Dwinal of Washington Street, who helped gather petition signatures that triggered the referendum, brought the mailing to the City Council’s attention. The letter is signed by the Fields for Our Future Committee, which raised about $270,000 for the project and asked the city to borrow the remaining funds.
“The Fields for our Future Committee thanks you for your past support,” the May 28 letter, on committee stationery, stated. It said the loan for the project would be paid off over 10 years by revenue generated by the field, and that it would not increase taxes. It also directed people to places where questions about the project could be answered.
“We also encourage everyone to come out and show your support by voting in favor for the project on June 8th, that is if you are a Bath resident,” the letter continued. “You can also help us spread the word through friends and neighbors.”
Toward the end, the letter said the committee continued to raise funds for both the turf field and the Regional School Unit 1 Jobs for Maine Graduates Program, and that “if you know people that are interested in helping us out or even if you would be interested in giving more, just let us know.”
The bottom of the page lists an address, with Fields for Our Future in care of the Bath Recreation Department, at that department’s 4 Sheridan Road address.
Dwinal said she had been told the letters were sent by the city, using city employees to process and deliver them.
“What I want to know is, who authorized sending out a mailing that would influence the outcome of the election, using city manpower and city funds?,” Dwinal said.
She also asked why Fields for Our Future is on the city website under Recreation Department projects. The link on that page leads to the Fields for Our Future website, where viewers are asked to vote yes on the referendum.
City Manager Bill Giroux said much of the issue cannot be addressed in public because it involves personnel questions. He said the letter went through the city’s mailing system but was billed to Fields for Our Future, so the city did not pay for it.
“As far as city manpower being used, I’ve got to look into that, as to whether or not city staff did some work on this,” Giroux said. He noted that city staff has been involved in the field, and that Parks and Recreation Director Steve Balboni had been asked by city councilors to be on a panel to discuss and advocate for the turf field.
“To say that at this point, someone has at the last minute stepped in and tried to influence the outcome of the election from a letter that was sent only to those who had already donated may be a stretch,” he said. “I’m looking into all of it, and to the extent that it’s not a personnel matter, I can advise the council what I find.”
Giroux said he did not see the website link as ethics violation, since the city has links to different sites it thinks may be of interest to people. He also said he thought the Recreation Department address listed on the letter was there as a place people could direct donations for the project.
Councilor David Sinclair noted that what Dwinal had “is not a complaint about the fact that the rec director has his own personal opinion, and speaks freely about that. The problem with this communication is that it makes it appear as though the city government has a stance on this matter that was before the voters.”
Sinclair made a motion that Giroux look into who knew about the communication before it went out, how many copies were created, how many city staff worked on it, how many people it went to, and what the motivation was behind the distribution, and to report those findings at the council’s next scheduled meeting. The council approved the motion unanimously.
Balboni declined to comment on the matter following the meeting, although he did say he encourages the investigation.
Giroux said after the meeting that the letter was sent to 70 people who had already donated to the project.
“This is a city field that city citizens were raising money for,” he said.
In other business, the council voted to accept the fiscal 2011 budget. The $13.7 million spending plan is a 3.8 percent decrease from the current year. With city, county and school assessments combined, taxes to Bath residents will remain flat for the third consecutive year.
The council also voted 5-1 to borrow up to $175,000 to purchase the former National Guard Armory. The Old Brunswick Road property has been viewed as a possible home for the Bath Youth Meetinghouse and Skatepark, which currently operates in the former YMCA on Summer Street.
Sinclair, who cast the dissenting vote, said there is no reason to purchase the building before the city has decided what to do with it.
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.