Lawsuit threat looms over Harpswell water tower decision

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HARPSWELL — An attorney for residents who want to preserve the water tower at Mitchell Field is preparing a lawsuit against the town.

Town attorney Amy Tchao told the Board of Selectmen at a special meeting Tuesday that the notice was contained in an email she received July 19 from attorney Chris Neagle of Portland-based Troubh Heisler, representing the Friends of Mitchell Field.

According to Tchao, Neagle said the nonprofit group will seek an expedited hearing on a motion for declaratory judgment to prevent demolition of the water tower.

She said Neagle also suggested selectmen table signing a contract for the water tower’s demolition, scheduled for their July 26 meeting.

He asked the board not take action until the public had a chance “to review the Friends of Mitchell Field proposal and (a) lead paint report,” and said residents should have another chance to vote on the issue in a referendum.

Tempers flared at the July 24 meeting when Chairman Rick Daniel suggested Selectman David Chipman recuse himself from an executive session on the matter because of his past involvement with the Friends of Mitchell Field. Chipman declined.

After the private discussion, selectmen voted 2-1 to go ahead with the demolition contract, with Chipman opposed.

Conflict of interest

Daniel said Chipman’s past interactions with Friends of Mitchell Field, including one instance in May when Chipman took paint chip samples from the tower and gave them to the nonprofit to be tested for lead – without the knowledge of other selectmen – constitute a conflict of interest.

Chipman argued he has had “no contact” with members of the group recently, and said the paint issue was “such old news.”

“Then it’s all old news, why don’t we go home then?” Daniel replied. “The questions they’re asking go back a year and a half. How is something you did a month ago old news?”

Chipman also repeated his statement from previous meetings that “a difference of opinion does not constitute a conflict of interest.”

“Effectively what you and this group did was you took away the proper voice and vote of this board as to the disposition of town property,” Daniel said. “Think about that, think about if each one of us can do that, and just do that without the voice of the rest of the board – what are we living in then?”

Daniel and Selectman Kevin Johnson ultimately relented on Chipman’s participation in the executive session.

“Let him in, if he runs his mouth let him hang himself,” Johnson said.

Potential lawsuit

Before the public vote on the possible demolition contract delay, Chipman said he thought the board should instead have “a full public discussion” of the matter at the July 26 meeting.

“I see this getting very expensive if we’re not careful,” he said.

Neagle’s letter came after Friends of Mitchell Field member Dorothy Rosenberg said last week  that her group would be meeting with an attorney to discuss litigation.

Also last week, Rosenberg said the lawsuit would be about the town’s “unreasonable” rejection of her group’s 351-signature petition for a re-vote on demolition of the water tower.

Selectmen rejected the group’s petition in May, and later ruled against the Friends’ request for a special Town Meeting on the matter.

Prior to Tuesday’s executive session, Rosenberg said the only comment she could make on Neagle’s letter is that it is not her group’s preference to pursue litigation.

“It’s open to the town at any point to save themselves a whole lot of money and everyone a whole lot of trouble,” she said. “It would cost nothing for it to go on the ballot and be voted on. We pledged that we would accept the outcome of that vote.”

Following the session, Daniel said nothing in the letter was of “substantive value that changes anything,” which is why he did not feel inclined to hold off on signing the contract.

“We will sign a contract Thursday if there is one available,” he said. “Unless, however, the actions of others stop that.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

Harpswell town attorney Amy Tchao, left, Selectman David Chipman, Chairman Rick Daniel and Selectman Kevin Johnson at a special meeting July 24. Selectmen voted 2-1 not to delay action on a contract for demolition of the Mitchell Field water tower.

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