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Critics of Bath property sale seek recall of city councilors

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Critics of Bath property sale seek recall of city councilors

BATH — Critics of a sale of city-owned property, angered by the City Council's refusal to disclose what transpired in a closed-door discussion of the sale, are campaigning to recall at least five councilors.

Larry Scott of Washington Street – one of several outspoken opponents of the way the Mid Coast Center for Higher Education was sold in May – announced the recall drive in an Aug. 21 email.

The night before, councilors decided to seek advice from the Maine Municipal Association and Maine attorney general's office on the appointment of an independent investigator to look into the sale. They also voted 7-1, with Councilor David Sinclair opposed, not to waive the council's executive session privilege.

"With no ability to review all the information in a thorough and transparent manner," Scott said in the email, "there can be no real and meaningful investigation. You can feel free to review what happened, who did what and when, why they didn't do anything in a professional manner, but they won't let you have all the data to truly understand what happened and who is responsible."

Petitions are being circulated for the recall of council Chairman Bernard Wyman and Councilors Andrew Winglass, Meadow Rue Merrill, Sean Paulhus, Carolyn Lockwood. Councilors Mari Eosco, Leverett Mitchell and Steve Brackett, who are up for re-election, have not been included, he said Friday. Sinclair, who has called for the council to publicly answer questions about the sale, is not a recall target.

A meeting about the recall campaign was held Monday at the York Street home of Michael Wischkaemper. He, Scott and others have criticized the lack of a response from most councilors to questions submitted after the sale was announced.

The petitioners also collected signatures Tuesday from voters in the state Senate District 19 election at Bath Middle School.

"The response was much ... stronger than we thought it would be; we got quite a distance," Scott said Wednesday.

He did not have exact numbers at hand, but said he has received hundreds of signatures, showing that the petition effort is a serious one, and that the City Council "really need(s) to ... consider the possibility of addressing the question."

City Clerk Mary White said signatures will have to be gathered according to City Council ward. Signatures equal to 50 percent of the number of votes cast in a councilor's most recent election would be needed to trigger a recall election.

White said Wednesday that 215 votes are needed for Merrill in Ward 1, 265 for Paulhus in Ward 2, 280 for Lockwood in Ward 3, 240 for Wyman in Ward 4, and 1,260 for Winglass's At-Large seat.

Once the required signatures have been gathered and certified, the city will have 60 days to conduct elections. Scott said he hopes that could take place on Election Day, Nov. 5, to avoid an extra expense for the city.

White said the Election Day ballot must be set by Sept. 17.

Merrill on Aug. 23 said she was surprised by the petition drive, which she called an "unfortunate" development.

"I think we've taken good steps to address the public concerns (about the sale) by implementing a new protocol for how city property is sold, and also unanimously voting in favor of going through an investigation," she said. "I don't think any of us have anything to hide; we just want to make sure that these queries ar handled in the most appropriate way."

Merrill said she now wishes the council had gone through a different process to sell the building, "but at the actual moment ... it just seemed like a great opportunity. ... I was just hoping to sell the property and save the city money, and put some cash back into the coffers so that we could keep the tax rate down."

She called the recall effort hasty and ill-conceived. "But if people feel like they need a new council," she said, "then I guess that's up to the voters."

Wyman said he doesn't believe councilors did anything wrong. According to the city solicitor and manager, he said Aug. 23, "everything was done by the book."

"If they want to recall me, OK, I've got 19 years in there, and I figure I've given a lot to the city, and I don't think I've done anything illegal, and if they want to throw me out of the office for that, more power to them," he said. "They just want to be careful about the next person they get in."

"The level of mistrust is what is so unfortunate," Merrill added. "May we have made a mistake? Absolutely. I'm not saying we did this perfectly. But I don't think anybody's claiming perfection here. I think (if) you vote in new people, you're just going to get a new set of flaws."

The council on April 17 unanimously approved the sale of the former hospital on Park Street. The city had owned the property for about a decade before selling it to Robert Smith of Phippsburg for nearly $800,000, despite its assessed value of $6.5 million, according to the city's online database. The vote drew no public comment that night.

Wischkaemper and Scott have said they do not oppose the sale of the building, but do not think the city practiced due diligence in setting a price, and did not sell it in an appropriate way.

"The last two meetings in a row, I believe I went in with a feeling that everything was going correctly, and it was working toward a common goal," Scott said Friday.

But he said he was disappointed by the vote to maintain secrecy regarding the executive session.

Even though he was told by councilors that almost all of what went on in that meeting has been discussed publicly, Scott said "I have no way of knowing if that's accurate. I have no idea what 'most' is. I don't know what 'most' isn't. I don't know what 99 percent is, I don't know what the 1 percent is."

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.