Questions raised by letter in support of turf field prompt Bath policy change

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BATH — An investigation into the city’s role in a letter supporting the McMann Field artificial turf project has prompted a change in the way future mass mailings are handled by municipal officials.

Following Wednesday’s City Council meeting, City Manager Bill Giroux said he and the city solicitor will develop a procedure, to be reviewed by the council, requiring department heads to have mass mailings approved by the city manager.

Bath residents voted 1,522 to 861 last month against the city borrowing up to $300,000 to help fund the turf field, overturning the council’s 4-3 decision in February.

Jackie Dwinal of Washington Street, who helped gather signatures for a petition that led to the referendum, brought the mailing to the council’s attention last month. The May 28 letter, sent to project supporters and asking them to vote in favor of the project in the June 8 referendum, was signed by the Fields for Our Future Committee, which raised about $270,000 for the field and wanted the city to borrow the remaining funds.

“If you know people that are interested in helping us out or even if you would be interested in giving more, just let us know,” the letter said.

The contact address on the letter was Fields for Our Future in care of the Bath Recreation Department.

Giroux on Wednesday presented a chronology of events before and after the mailing was sent. He said Parks and Recreation Director Steve Balboni edited the letter, written by Fields for Our Future Committee Co-Chairwoman Susan Goodfellow, on his department computer, and that Balboni printed the letter on a department printer on Fields for Our Future letterhead.

Giroux has noted that city staff were involved in the field proposal, and that Balboni had been asked by city councilors to serve on a panel to discuss and advocate for the project. The letter listed Balboni as a member of the Fields for Our Future Committee.

The city ordinance states that city employees are barred “from using influence in any way for or against a candidate for an elective office in the City government,” although “this is not construed to prevent City employees from exercising their rights as private citizens in becoming or continuing to be members of political organizations, expressing views on political matters, or voting with complete freedom in any election.”

Councilor Kyle Rogers, who had helped collect signatures for the petition, noted that everyone has a right to express their own opinions. Still, he said, “I’m trying to prevent the city from jumping into the middle of a political issue and advocating for one side or the other.”

Giroux has said that the address on the letter was intended as a place where turf field donations could be directed.

Balboni said that “in no way was this representing the way that the Parks and Recreation Department is telling you how to vote.”

The Fields for Our Future Committee, meanwhile, now want to know if the City Council still supports the turf field project. The council voted unanimously in favor of holding a workshop to discuss the committee’s direction and any council concerns.

“Let’s weed these things out so that we’re all moving forward together, we don’t have just a simple majority,” Councilor Mari Eosco said.

Giroux said the workshop may be held in August or September.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.