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County commissioners add to flap surrounding MRRA appointments

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County commissioners add to flap surrounding MRRA appointments

BRUNSWICK — The goal to keep politics off the board that oversees redevelopment of Brunswick Naval Air Station seems to have required political – and possibly illegal – maneuvering. 

After previously abstaining from endorsing individuals to serve on the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners in December hastily engaged in the process. In doing so, the commissioners may have added to the backlash to Gov. John Baldacci's recent slate of nominations, which excluded Brunswick's town manager.

At the same time, the commissioners also apparently violated the state's right-to-know law.

Between Dec. 22 and Dec. 23, commissioners decided to recommend two Brunswick residents for the MRRA. The decision was made after commissioners built consensus through a series of phone calls and no public decision-making – a violation of the state's Freedom of Access Act, which prohibits elected officials from conducting public business in private.

The board's action ultimately led to a Dec. 24 letter from former Chairwoman Malory Shaughnessy to Gov. John Baldacci endorsing the appointments of Steven Weems and Sally DelGreco to the MRRA.

Weems and DelGreco were nominated by Baldacci on Dec. 31.

Shaughnessy and county Manager Peter Crichton confirmed this week that the board's decision was reached privately. They said the end-of-year deadline to endorse Weems and DelGreco required commissioners to act quickly after their regular Dec. 21 meeting.

"It was important to get names in quickly," Crichton said. "The commissioners have nothing to hide here. I understand that there are some people who are not pleased with the decision, but the commissioners' action was entirely appropriate."

Like municipalities affected by base closure, the county has the authority to recommend residents to serve on the MRRA board.

However, the timing and the manner of the commissioners' endorsements further illustrates the behind-the-scenes jockeying that preceded the governor's latest round of appointments.

It also sheds additional light on Baldacci's decision not to reappoint Brunswick Town Manager Gary Brown, an omission some Brunswick officials have deemed an affront to the town's role in base redevelopment, and a widening of the rift between state and local officials as the base approaches its 2011 closure.

Brown's reappointment was effectively blocked by state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who argued Brown's position as the town's chief executive, an employee of the Town Council, would lead to the politicization of MRRA.

State law governing the MRRA prohibits elected officials from serving on the board, but doesn't prohibit the appointment of municipal employees.

In explaining Baldacci's decision to omit Brown, David Farmer, the governor's deputy chief of staff, on Dec. 31 echoed Gerzofsky, saying that although Brown's reappointment would not "violate the letter of the law, it certainly wasn't in the spirit of the law."

But preventing the politicization of the MRRA seems to have required political muscle.

Gerzofsky, who advises Baldacci on MRRA appointments, played a key role in each of the governor's recent slate of nominations. He convinced two area state representatives to write letters to a local newspaper arguing against Brown's reappointment.

One of those representatives, Freeport Democratic Rep. David Webster, also recommended nominees Sande Updegraph and Rita Armstrong, two candidates ultimately endorsed by the Freeport Town Council. In her application letter to the governor, Armstrong said Gerzofsky originally contacted her about serving MRRA.

Last week, Gerzofsky acknowledged that he convinced Shaughnessy to lobby county commissioners to endorse Weems and DelGreco. That effort took place after the Brunswick Town Council on Dec. 21 decided not to consider recommending additional candidates.

The list of candidates presented to councilors by former Chairwoman Hallie Daughtry included Weems, DelGreco, Armstrong and Updegraph, each of whom was supported by Gerzofsky and ultimately nominated by Baldacci.

Gerzofsky has not been bashful about his decision not to support Brown, arguing that he acted in the best interests of his constituents by keeping politics off the MRRA and upping Brunswick's representation on the board from two to four members.

But Gerzofsky's ability to convince Shaughnessy and the county commissioners to endorse MRRA candidates at the eleventh hour – and out of the public purview – may appear hypocritical, if not furtive.

Shaughnessy acknowledged that she did not know either Weems or DelGreco personally, but relied on consultations with Gerzofsky and Webster. She said she, too, shared concerns about Brown's reappointment.

Shaughnessy added that her district includes Brunswick, which needed additional representation on MRRA because it was at the epicenter of base closure.

Shaughnessy said that the commissioners took the unprecedented step of endorsing candidates only after the Brunswick Town Council refused to – a last-minute decision that she said required reaching consensus out of the public's view.

"There have been times where we've had to call a special meeting to deal with something," she said. "... But this wasn't really a meeting."

Shaughnessy added that the fallout from Brown's omission from the MRRA was revealing.

"The fact that there's all this politics around this decision lends itself to the fact that (Brown's reappointment) would've been an issue," she said.

Brown's omission, and Gerzofsky's role in it, has already drawn sharp criticism from some town councilors. During the council's annual retreat on Jan. 9, Chairwoman Joanne King told councilors that the town's legislative delegation "had insulted" Brown and the council.

"I told them that despite what happened during the snubbing of our town manager ... that we all understand we have to keep working with our delegation," King said. "We have to make the best of the situation we've been dealt."

King was unaware of any efforts by councilors to drum up support for their chief executive beyond an endorsement letter sent to Baldacci in November. Other members of the delegation had reportedly not been contacted, nor were the co-chairs of the legistlative committee that help confirm Baldacci's appointments.

Brown did receive support from Bowdoin College and the editorial board of a local newspaper.

King said that the council's inaction stemmed from mixed messages received from Gerzofsky, who she said repeatedly told Brown to continue serving on the MRRA despite a previous verbal agreement that Brown would step down if he became the town's manager.

Brown was originally appointed when he was the assistant town manager.

Gerzofsky continues to stand by his actions, saying Brown's reappointment would have set a precedent for appointing other town managers to the board. 

"The Town Council thinks it can hold my feet to the fire," he said last week. "But they're wrong and I'm right."

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net