SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors on Monday, May 4, will decide whether to go behind closed doors to discuss the performance of the director of the city’s largest municipal department.
The possible executive session comes after Dana Anderson, the director of Parks, Recreation, Public Works and Libraries, settled a lawsuit accusing him of embezzling $37,500 while he was the treasurer of a local, non-profit association of basketball officials.
Mayor Tom Blake said four councilors – including himself – want the private meeting. Other councilors, however, said they would need to see the exact wording of the request before deciding to support it.
Their reluctance seemed to center around whether the council will discuss Anderson’s job performance while also getting legal advice about how and whether to proceed with an in-depth investigation into his department, or whether the council will simply discuss the financial controls the city has in place.
While a targeted personnel discussion is considered an appropriate use of a closed session under Maine law, a general discussion about financial controls and whether to pursue an independent investigation is not.
Blake said he wants to make sure that the executive session does not turn into an interrogation.
Anderson settled the lawsuit brought against him in Cumberland County Superior Court by the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials on April 6.
His attorney, Thomas Marjerison, said he advised Anderson to agree to pay $900 to the IAABO, even though both men believe the lawsuit was simply a personal vendetta. Anderson admitted no wrong-doing in the settlement and said last week that he was innocent of the charges.
Marjerison said Maine State Police conducted a criminal investigation into the IAABO’s claims about six years ago and decided not to file criminal charges. The IAABO didn’t file a civil lawsuit until last year.
“This case was brought years after Dana was cleared in the criminal investigation and appeared to be nothing but a vendetta against him,” Marjerison said. “If there was any merit to the claims, the plaintiff never would have resolved this case for $900.”
IAABO Attorney Robert Smith said the group settled the case because of the legal expenses it would have incurred by persuing the matter.
“To continue this on would have meant mediation fees and a lot more legal expenses,” Smith said. “We’re a small organization and we don’t have a budget for that.”
Some city leaders have known about the embezzlement allegations for years. City Manager Jim Gailey said he and three other previous managers were aware, but determined the city’s financial safeguards were adequate.
Councilor Jim Hughes said the City Council previously discussed any implications the criminal investigation would have on the city, where Anderson oversees a budget of nearly $9 million. The council dropped the matter when there were no criminal charges, he said.
However, Councilor Linda Boudreau, who has served for more than 16 years, did not recall any official discussion of the criminal investigation.
“I only heard of it through the rumor mills,” Boudreau said. “I’m really surprised by all of this.”
While unrelated to Anderson’s city job, some aspects of the case – including the alleged transfer of funds to his daughter – raised questions about the way Anderson runs his department, where two permanent employees and a former paid consultant are his relatives and it is common to accept donations for city services without oversight by the City Council.
Several councilors said Wednesday that they were surprised to discover that in-kind donations of $1,000 by outside groups did not have to be accepted by the council, which accepts much smaller donations to the library, Fire Department and and other departments.
“I would like to see all donations accepted by the City Council,” Hughes said. “Not necessarily because of money going astray, but I would like to be able to recognize people who give to the city.”
Councilor Tom Coward said that, while he believes the city’s has adequate financial controls, the council needs to discuss the connection between the private charges and the city department.
“If we were a large corporation and this type of allegation was made about a key employee, we’d want to look into it,” Coward said.
Councilor Jim Soule, however, said an in-depth investigation into Wainwright Athletic Fields donations, and other department financial records, is needed to restore public confidence. Soule also wondered why large recreation donations are different from the other smaller donations the council must accept.
“Why is this department any different?” Soule said. “It’s paramount that we as councilors do a thorough investigation and come out with a finding of fact.”