Falmouth councilors plan private meeting to reconsider assessing change
FALMOUTH — The Town Council will likely re-open discussions next week on its recent decision to outsource the town's assessing department to Cumberland County.
On Monday, the council scheduled a special, closed-door meeting for Thursday, April 10, after a request by Councilor Russ Anderson, who is a staunch opponent of the change in assessing practice.
Anderson also expressed his criticism in a letter to the editor published this week by The Forecaster.
The council approved the change, 5-2, on March 24 after a lengthy discussion. During the discussion, Anderson claimed that the Town Charter does not allow the council to dismantle the assessing department, among others – an opinion Anderson reiterated in his letter. Anderson has also said he opposes outsourcing the department, regardless of the charter's wording.
Councilor Chris Orestis joined Anderson in voting against the plan.
Town attorney William Plouffe has advised the council's decision is allowed under the charter, an opinion that was backed by a majority councilors, because, in essence, the charter gives the town manager the authority to hire and fire the town's assessor.
The council's decision authorized Town Manager Nathan Poore to "enter into a contract with Cumberland County regarding assessing services in Falmouth."
Plouffe couldn't be reached by telephone Tuesday for comment. An assistant in his office at the Drummond Woodsum law firm in Portland said he was out of state for a week-long trial.
Anderson said Tuesday that the council's decision leaves the town vulnerable to a lawsuit, and that a substantial number of residents have expressed "dissatisfaction with that action." He added he is unaware of any pending litigation.
Even there are no known lawsuits pending, town officials plan to hold their April 10 discussion in an executive session.
Council Chairwoman Teresa Pierce said the rationale for the private meeting is Title 405, Section E of Maine law, which allows an executive session if "premature general public knowledge would clearly place the (town) at a substantial disadvantage."
Pierce said she is confident about Plouffe's opinion, but said there's no harm in another round of talks.
"If people feel very strongly about things, or they're concerned, or need more clarification, why wouldn't we do that?" she said.
Nonetheless, Pierce said the council has had an exhaustive debate on the subject over the course of a year.
"We did a lot of due diligence; spent a lot of time talking about this issue; gave a lot of opportunities for public comment; and heard from our town attorney, who I have no reason, at this point, to have any qualms with how he came down on the issue," she said.
The issue of whether outsourcing the assessing department is allowed by the charter was an eleventh-hour development in a months-long process. Anderson said the question was first raised by a Falmouth resident and it initially caught him off guard.
"It never occurred to any of us that we would be asked to deal with a matter outside the bounds of our authority," he said. "We make the assumption that actions brought before (the council) are permissible under the Town Charter, so it's not the sort of question that would normally arise."
Anderson acknowledged that publicly criticizing his fellow councilors is rare. He said he's not aware of any precedent for a letter to the editor, but added that the council's action might also be unprecedented.
"How many times has the council taken action that's in clear violation of the Town Charter?" he said. "I think we have an extraordinary situation here."
Nonetheless, he reiterated his respect for his colleagues.
"I'm thankful that Teresa is going to reconvene the council to discuss it one more time," he said. "I have great respect for every councilor. I think this council is unique in that we all like each other and we all respect each other, but that doesn't mean we aren't going to disagree on certain matters, and this happens to be one of them."
Councilor Karen Farber said her opinion from March 24 still stands.
"As a non-attorney, I have to put my confidence with the town attorney we have," she said. "I trust his analysis. ... I see the logic in what (Plouffe) has laid out. It makes sense to me. I see no reason to second-guess that."
Regardless of the outcome, Falmouth will need a new assessor by the end of the fiscal year because long-time assessor Anne Gregory plans to retire on June 31. If the March 24 decision stands, Cumberland County Assessor Gary James will handle Falmouth's valuations beginning in July. Cumberland and Yarmouth have already contracted their assessing services with the county.
Poore has said consolidation would net the town annual savings between $50,000 and $60,000.