Falmouth council may review property bids behind closed doors

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FALMOUTH — The public may be left in the dark initially when it comes to the bids and negotiations for the former Plummer-Motz and Lunt school buildings.

In its meeting Wednesday, the Town Council is expected to discuss whether to review bids for purchase or lease of the school properties in public or in executive session. Bids for the properties are due Nov. 29.

Nearly all the councilors said they would prefer to wait to hear Wednesday’s discussion and the town attorney’s recommendation before deciding whether to seal the bids and negotiations from the public’s view.

“I can argue both ways,” Council Chairwoman Teresa Pierce said. “Really, it comes down to my fiduciary responsibility to the town.”

Pierce said she wants to make sure the public is involved in any decision about the future of the properties, but that she does not want to hinder negotiations between a potential bidder and the town by revealing what other companies offer for the properties.

“Eventually, it will all be public. But I wouldn’t want to lose my negotiating power (by opening the bids in public),” she said.

Councilor Fred Chase agreed that limiting the town’s negotiating power is a bad idea.

“We have no alternative but to look at any proposals in executive session,” Chase said, “and hopefully be able to have the town manager go back and negotiate with somebody.”

He said after the council chooses a winning bid, the information should be made public.

Councilor Tony Payne said that if it does not impair the council’s ability to get the best outcome from the bids, he has no problem discussing them in public.

“Eventually, it should all be open,” he said. “But I don’t want to give up anything when dealing with the taxpayer’s money.”

Councilor Bonny Rodden agreed, but also said she wants to see the discussion of process held in public on Wednesday.

Because the town’s attorney will be present, the council could exercise its right to go into executive session for “consultations between a body or agency and its attorney concerning the legal rights and duties of the body or agency,” according to Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

However, councils can only go into executive session in this instance when “premature general public knowledge would clearly place the (town) at a substantial disadvantage.”

“The law says public proceedings should be conducted publicly,” Rodden said. “I think this is a process issue and should be discussed in public.”

She said she would wait to decide whether the bids should be opened in public until after hearing from the attorney and her fellow councilors.

“I think my decision may be determined on whether the bids can be opened publicly, but chosen by the council in executive session,” Rodden said.

Councilor Chris Orestis said he is worried having the discussion in public would draw the attention of “one particular person very dedicated to disruption.”

He would not identify that person.

“When I saw this on the agenda, the first thing that popped into my head was what impact this disruptive force will have on the process,” Orestis said.

He said that if the bids are discussed in public there would be “a constant bomb-thrower in the process.”

However, Orestis said that even if the initial bids are sealed, he would like to open the process to the public as soon as possible.

“In an ideal world, where we didn’t have a dedicated force of disruption in the community, I would like to have as open a process as possible,” he said.

Town Manager Nathan Poore said Wednesday’s discussion would outline the way the bids would be handled, and also the process going forward.

He said he would recommend the council make the bids public after the negotiations take place, but before there is an award, so councilors can take comment from the public.

“That will give the public the opportunity to weigh in,” he said.

Poore added that approximately 20 people showed up for a walk-through of the buildings for those interested in submitting bids, and that he thought there were at least a half-dozen potential bidders.

Councilors Will Armitage and Faith Varney could not be reached for comments.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

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