Chebeague Island in crisis: Money missing, viability in doubt

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CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — The town is at a crossroads after public funds were discovered missing, two selectmen resigned, and a revised Comprehensive Plan draft questioning its financial sustainability was accidentally released.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Christopher Loder declined to say how much money is missing, but said the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office is investigating.

“It was sufficient for law enforcement to be called,” Loder said.

Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Paul Thorpe said he heard that “a few thousand dollars” are missing, but he was unsure of the exact amount. He said Detective Brian Ackerman was on the island Tuesday interviewing witnesses and town officials and employees.

Ackerman on Wednesday morning declined to provide information about the amount of money missing, which account it was from, and who was responsible for the account. He also wouldn’t say whether the discrepancy is being considered a criminal act or a bookkeeping mistake.

“I can’t give anything out due to the sensitivity of the investigation,” Ackerman said.

Thorpe said town officials discovered the funds were missing Dec. 31, 2015, but they had been missing since April. Thorpe, Ackerman, and town officials offered no explanation for how no one noticed the money was missing during that eight-month period.

Selectmen held an emergency meeting Jan. 2 to discuss the missing funds and the action to be taken. Loder said the sheriff’s office was called that night.

The board also accepted the resignations of two of its five members at the Jan. 2 meeting. Loder said the resignations were unrelated to the missing funds.

“It is an unfortunate coincidence that the topics in our meeting created a story that might cause some confusion,” he said in a letter posted on chebeague.org, a website run by an island resident. “The resignations and the possible crime are separate.”

Susan Campbell, vice chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, submitted a letter of resignation Dec. 22; Selectman William Calthorpe submitted one Jan. 1. Both were serving their first terms. Campbell’s term runs until June 30, and Calthorpe’s ends in 2017.

“We will miss both of them a great deal,” Loder said. “Each brought important perspective, skills, value and good humor to the board.”

According to Loder, Campbell left to pursue a new opportunity and Calthorpe resigned for family reasons. In his letter, Calthorpe also said he was unhappy with the direction the island is headed.

“My frustration level at the direction in many areas the town is pursuing and/or not pursuing is affecting my mood not only directly to myself, but worse, around my kids, and that on both levels is unacceptable,” he said.

Loder said a special election is expected to be held in March to fill the unexpired terms. The election will be separate from a special election already scheduled for Feb. 9, when residents will vote on the purchase of a new fire engine for approximately $230,000.

Residents will also be asked to approve an agreement to build a parking lot near Stone Wharf on a piece of land owned by the Great Chebeague Golf Club. In a nonbinding vote last June, voters approved continuing the discussion, which was used to guide negotiations.

The golf club has offered to donate nearly an acre of land along Stone Wharf Road so the town can have up to 40 parking spaces to serve the wharf. An agreement to transfer the land to the town has been written and, if approved by voters, a survey and engineering study would be completed.

Comprehensive Plan

The town has been struggling not only with how to sustain itself financially, but also with how to draft a new Comprehensive Plan that will pull it out of crisis mode.

In a draft of a revised Comprehensive Plan dated Nov. 11, 2015, the Planning Board expressed concern for the sustainability of the island’s future. The draft has since been removed from the town’s website.

Town Administrator Marjorie Stratton in November said it was removed because the Planning Board is rewriting the draft. She said she had not seen an updated proposal and that board member Carol White was responsible for drafting it.

Neither White nor other board members responded to several emails and phone calls about the draft over the past two months.

Portland resident Orlando Delogu, emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a consultant to the Planning Board, said the board has not finalized the draft and that it was put on the town website in November by mistake.

Loder said he is aware that the Planning Board is working on a new plan, but doesn’t “know anything official.” He said the Board of Selectmen hasn’t received any updates from the Planning Board.

He said he was “not surprised” by what the Comprehensive Plan draft said.

The draft plan noted that although the island became an independent town in 2007, “it is only now beginning to focus on how it can sustain this unique island community.” It went on to say that “no clear answer is possible” on whether there are enough year-round residents to sustain the town, but says the year-round population “can/must be increased.”

The draft said there are approximately 330 year-round residents on the island, and around 1,500 summer residents.

There are 15 goals outlined in the draft, which is down from 136 goals in the town’s Comprehensive Plan from 2011. One goal is to create new affordable housing on the island for low- and middle-income families and the elderly, and possibly create a Chebeague Island Housing Authority.

To do this, the town would need to create its own zoning, subdivision and development ordinances. It has been using ordinances from the town of Cumberland, which the island used to be a part of, but according to the draft, the ordinances have not been meeting the island’s needs.

The draft also called for better transportation options to the mainland, where there are more jobs.

“People who presently live and work on the island … will not sustain the town,” the plan said. “We need to take advantage of mainland jobs to sustain the town in the long run.”

The goals in the draft also include maintaining and growing the Chebeague Island School, protecting the town’s freshwater aquifer, maintaining the island’s historic character and creating a five-year capital improvement budget for infrastructure needs.

The draft states that all the work must be done by year-round residents, town officials and administrators. It said the work can’t be expected to be done by summer residents, or by outside consultants because that wouldn’t be “economically feasible.”

According to Stratton, the Planning Board is scheduled to meet Jan. 22, although neither the meeting nor an agenda are listed on the town website. However, Stratton said agendas usually aren’t created until the day before or the day of a meeting. The Maine Municipal Association doesn’t require agendas to be posted prior to a meeting, but says proper notice of a meeting must be given.

Delogu, who is also a columnist for The Forecaster, said he doesn’t believe the Planning Board will be discussing the revised comprehensive plan on Jan. 22 because he has not been asked to attend.

He said he expects the board to go public with “a more finished form” of the plan in a month or two, with the hope of having a final plan adopted at the Town Meeting in June.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Christopher Loder, chairman of the Chebeague Island Board of Selectmen, said he is “not surprised” by a Comprehensive Plan draft that questions the town’s financial sustainability.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.
  • MaineResident

    I read through the artical to better understand the “crisis” that Chebeague Island is facing, but quickly ascertained that the headline is simply to attract readership and is entirely unsubstantiated. This island community is always in discussions about sustainability—consistent with all promising Maine communities looking forward. Our budgets are healthy and the town population is growing, our roads are paved and our school is one of the best in the entire state. Our residents are passionately involved in town politics and town planning. I believe that political apathy, dwindling funds and school closure would be signs of “crises” not the dribble mentioned above. Chebeague Island, by all practical measurements, has a very bright and self-sustaining future.

    • islandblue

      However, misappropriation of public funds is pretty serious and needs to be appropriately addressed.

      • MaineResident

        Misappropriation of funds is serious even if it’s just a few thousand dollars. Does it need to be addressed? Indeed and immediate action was taken. Did you read the article?

        • Guest

          Why so defensive? Did you take it?

  • Guest

    Great article! Can’t wait to see what the Comprehensive Plan will say when it releases

  • David R. Hill

    MaineResident (below) is absolutely correct. This article belongs in the National Enquirer.

    • Solomon

      Uncle Fester? Is that you?

  • Donna Miller Damon

    After 44 years of being involved in town government in Cumberland and Chebeague, I have seen it all, but never have I seen a headline and article as misleading, sensational, erroneous, and full of innuendo as the article written in the Forecaster by Kate Gardner about the Town of Chebeague Island.

    Chebeague Island is high performing viable year-round community with a rich history of innovation and stability. After Chebeague seceded from Cumberland the
    island community has become even stronger with many more people being actively
    involved in Town government. When the island was part of Cumberland there was a town councilor, planning board member, a coastal waters rep and that was about it. Now we have 5 selectmen, 5 school board, 7 planning board, 5 shellfish, 5 coastal waters, 7 Sunset Committee, and 5 on a Road Committee. Today members of the
    island public attend the meetings of these committees, whereas, islanders
    rarely attended meetings when we were part of Cumberland. The infrastructure of the Town has been upgraded with new Town trucks, fire trucks, miles of roads paved, Stone Wharf improvements, a fire communication tower and more. One bond has been repaid in full; bills are paid on time; taxes are paid on time; the school is one of the top 25 in Maine; and our non-profits continue to thrive. The population has increased; new businesses have been created; lobstering has been good; the boat schedule makes commuting easier; our government is transparent ergo looking into a discrepancy in the books; selectmen come and go; people worry that we have too any people or not enough people; citizens’ opinions differ. That’s all part of being a town.
    We Chebeaguers are doing just fine; and we are still in business working hard to make a great community even stronger.

    • Peter K. Bingham

      I have known Donna for many years in my various roles in Cumberland town government and I would tend to concur with any observations that she makes. Given the fact that I find the Forecaster’s coverage of Cumberland’s town government quite balanced, I was quite surprised at the tone of the headline. I had thought and continue to think that Chebeague is adapting quite well as an independent town.

    • islandblue

      However, misappropriation of public funds is pretty serious….I suspect that was the impetus of the article, the rest superfluous. Except for the excluding ‘non year round residents in planning’ part, all sounds like it is well in control.

      • Donna Miller Damon

        I believe that the exclusion was part of a draft by an outside consultant -nothing that had been approved by the Planning Board or the Town of Chebeague. Non-residents are welcome and heard at all meetings and are polled along with everyone else when we created our existing comp plan. Their opinions were reflected in the Town’s Comp Plan’s vision. In fact non residents served on that committee.

  • Chloe Dyer

    This article makes it quite clear that the reporter has little to no experience visiting the island and talking to residents that keep the town and its many operations running on a daily basis. Perhaps more research and knowledge of the town’s history, culture, values and positive changes since 2007 are necessary for any article on Chebeague in the future.

  • Outsida

    While homers are entitled to debate whether the usage of “crisis” and “viability” are accurate, from the outside view, having 40% of your leaders resign, having a money scandal, and having many other sources of community discord (the medical clinic) certainly doesn’t project the image of “all is well.” It isn’t a problem when people get upset or disillusioned and quit participating in governance if you have a large population, but with adults only numbering in the dozens, eventually the town will run out of potential, willing leaders. All the negatives of being a part of Cumberland may some day look like a pretty good trade-off for the benefits gained from scale. There was a good reason that Cumberland didn’t resist the secession movement…

    • David R. Hill

      …but they did:

      Tuesday, November 29, 2005
      Chebeague’s Secession Stalled
      The Cumberland town council has voted 6-1 not to support Chebeague Island’s bid to secede. On Nov. 8, 86 percent of islanders voted to break away from Cumberland, while 53 percent of mainlanders opposed secession.

      • EABeem

        So, Dave, I trust you judgment. Question: is this story factually accurate? Does the island have a serious problem or not?

        • David R. Hill

          I stand by all the statements made by Donna, Chloe, Peter, and MaineResident. Our two resignations were for personal reasons totally unrelated to the possible theft of a small amount of money. As for the Planning Board (on which Nancy serves), the comp plan is a work in progress and my understanding of the draft tells me that the quotes are taken completely out of context. I do know that Ms. Gardner has yet to attend a Planning Board or Selectmens meeting.

          The implication that the “town’s financial sustainability” is in jeopardy is preposterous. As for the other “issues,” you and I faced far more serious problems when we served together on the Yarmouth School Committee during the last century.

          • EABeem

            Last century…makes me feel old.

        • Donna Miller Damon

          The only real problem is the issue of the missing money, which is being investigated as it should be, It is unfortunate that we are not the only town in Maine where this has happened. As I described below, we are financially sound and have nearly 40 people on Town committees. We are one of many island towns with committed citizens who get the people’s business done. Despite the warnings from outside consultants we are sustainable and are not in crisis! Hope this helps.

        • David R. Hill

          I should let Chris speak for himself, but the implication that Christopher Loder questions the town’s financial sustainability is, in my judgment, irresponsible, unsupported and very poor journalism.

      • Outsida

        You’re telling me there are 300 adults who are willing and able to be selectpersons out of a population of 330? Sounds unlikely.

        • David R. Hill

          There are about 350 people and about 50 are kids. All we need is five selectmen.

    • MaineResident

      Unfortunately, “Outside”, when you look from the outside it’s easy enough to take unrelated data and stir them together to create any kind of story. Slap an interesting headline on it and you might have an interesting read, even if false and off–course. I’m not sure what happened at the Forecaster this week but if they’re rounding a new corner in journalism, it’s not well-constructed or credible.

      It should be noted that this article falsely portrays a town slelectman, Chris Loder, as deeply concerned about the viability of the island. He absolutely is not. Nor do we have a small pool of interested politicians. While this may wane from time to time, I expect a pretty hearty turnout in March. You could hardly find a more civic-minded group of citizens. Feisty too, and sometimes the town debates are red hot. Find me a town in Maine that is prospering and doesn’t engage in heated debate and we’ll write an article about that.