Bath council goes public on disputed property sale

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BATH — The City Council voted Wednesday to publicly disclose a document discussed early this year in a closed-door meeting about the sale of city-owned property.

The one-page, Dec. 19, 2012, memorandum from Community Development Director Justin Poirier outlined the tenant situation at the Mid Coast Center for Higher Education, which the city sold in May. While city staff previously said the executive session preceding the sale occurred in February, it was reported Wednesday to have taken place in January.

“I think it would better for the public if we would simply agree … to release any and all documents related to any and all executive sessions that touched in any way upon the topic of the sale of that property,” Councilor David Sinclair said. “I would also urge that we make it not limited to disclosure to the investigator, but rather disclosure to anyone and everyone who would like to see the information.”

The City Council decided Sept. 4 to reverse an earlier decision not to disclose to an investigator what transpired in the January meeting. City Solicitor Roger Therriault said the next week that he was determining whether any documents were created that must also be disclosed, noting that even if such documents exist, the council did not have to also make them available to the public.

But the council voted 6-2 Wednesday, with Councilors Steve Brackett and Sean Paulhus opposed, to make Poirier’s letter and any documents related to the sale that were shared at or before the executive session, available to everyone.

The council also voted, along the same lines, to allow the investigator – who has yet to be chosen – access to all conversations and documents related to all meetings and executive sessions pertaining to the Mid Coast Center sale.

In addition, the council voted unanimously that any email exchanged by any councilor, City Manager Bill Giroux or Therriault dealing with the property sale is a public record, “and is not a record over which we will exert any claim of privilege or exclusionary waiver.”

Giroux said all such email messages are now available.

He noted that the memo is the only document he knows of that the council received before its January meeting. He called the memo “innocuous,” something meant to lead the council into discussion.

Poirier’s document notes that the Mid Coast Center – a former hospital on Park Street that the city had owned for a decade – had 11 paying tenants at the time. Three of them – Mid Coast Medical Group, University College of Bath/Brunswick and Southern Maine Community College – generated more than $100,000 a year in revenue.

Giroux said earlier this year that the city bought the building for $1 and sold it, to Robert Smith of Phippsburg, for $799,000. The council on April 17 unanimously approved the sale.

Giroux said at the time that the tenant situation was not stable, with one major tenant about to leave and the others shifting to short-term leases. He said Wednesday that the two colleges plan to leave next June.

According to the city’s online database, the building had an assessed value of $6.5 million. Paul Mateosian, the assessor and assistant city manager, has called that a “cost-approach number,” based on what it would cost to build a hospital that size, minus depreciation, that does not reflect market value.

Some residents, including Larry Scott and Michael Wischkaemper, have criticized the sale, claiming the city failed to practice due diligence in setting a price, and did not sell the building in an appropriate way. They are among those who have criticized the lack of a response from most councilors to questions they later submitted about the sale.

The council ultimately decided to hire an independent investigator to look into the sale. But the panel’s Aug. 21 decision to maintain confidentiality of the executive session prompted a campaign to recall five city councilors; with that confidentiality later waived, the campaign was suspended.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Sidebar Elements

No contests for 3 Bath council incumbents

BATH — Incumbents were the only people to submit nomination papers for the November City Council election by Tuesday’s deadline.

Councilor Mari Eosco of Washington Street is running again in Ward 5, with Councilor Leverett “Tink” Mitchell of Old Brunswick Road in Ward 7, and at-large Councilor Steve Brackett of Middle Street.

Eosco’s service has included four years as director of Main Street Bath, as well as time on the boards of the Chocolate Church Arts Center, Skate Park and Main Street Bath, and on the Parking Committee. She has also been a corporator of Bath Savings Institution.

Eosco joined the City Council to complete the remaining nine months in the term of the late Councilor Jack Hart, and has since served seven years on the panel.

“I have been very mixed on whether to run again, for a number of reasons,” including her small children, she said Monday.

Eosco noted, too, that the hospital sale controversy “has been incredibly stressful … but the bottom line is, I love this city, and I’m not done doing what I can to make it a better place.”

Mitchell, Bath’s former fire chief, served on the City Council from 2002-2008 before being elected again last year to complete the term of the late Councilor Ruthe Pagurko.

The hospital controversy “didn’t make me, for one second, rethink or regret what took place,” he said Monday. He said the council made “educated” decisions, “and I think they were good decisions.”

With more than three decades’ worth of service to the city, Mitchell said, “I’d like to serve a few more.”

Brackett, who has co-owned Brackett’s Market at 185 Front St. with his wife, Kimberly, for 17 years, is completing his first term on the City Council.

While the hospital issue has weighed on him, Brackett said, it did not deter him from running again.

“I love our little city; I just want to be part of government,” he said. “I have learned so much in the three years. It’s gone by quickly, so I definitely wanted to continue serving.”

Alex Lear

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.