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.
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.
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.