OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Last November, Old Orchard Beach Town Manager Mark Pearson wrote to the manager of a neighboring town about some troubles with his Town Council.
“They have four votes to get rid of me if they want,” Pearson told Kennebunkport Town Manager Larry Mead in an email message. “They can’t find a legitimate reason — so their method is to harass me through requests for information, bog me down with extra requests, request meetings with me on Friday nights at 6 p.m., etc.,” he wrote.
An upcoming council meeting would be fun, Pearson wrote to his friend. “Don’t miss the lynching!”
Such tension is not unusual in Old Orchard Beach, where four town managers have come and gone in 10 years. But even by those standards, politics has gotten ugly here in recent months — and potentially expensive.
After a series of hostile council meetings, Pearson finally did get fired last week in a 4-3 vote, and his attorney is threatening a lawsuit. Councilors gave no reason for their decision to terminate Pearson’s two-year contract. He was hired in February 2012.
Residents, embarrassed by the spectacle and frustrated by the council’s inability to get along, have implored members to stop the eye rolling, interrupting and yelling that have become a routine part of meetings. Councilors and residents alike have referred to it all as a circus.
“The ‘he said, she said’ needs to stop,” former Town Councilor Shawn O’Neill said at one meeting. “It seems to be a lot more apparent than in years past.”
Even Sharri MacDonald, the council chairwoman and a state representative, has called the meetings convoluted, and admitted there is little or no communication between councilors and the town administration.
“We’re pretty dysfunctional up here, if you didn’t notice,” she told the crowd at a meeting in December.
FIVE FINANCE DIRECTORS
Pearson is the third town manager to leave the post since Jim Thomas’s departure in 2007 after four tumultuous years. There have been five finance directors in the past 15 months, including three since February 2012.
Candidates running for Town Council often cite the attitude of board members as something they want to see change. Last November, when the council expanded from five to seven members after a charter change, 12 people ran for five open seats.
The turnout at town meetings has been especially large this winter as the council argued about the town manager, financial control of the library and the fate of the town’s public works director.
Public Works Director Bill Robertson allegedly threatened to shoot Pearson — an accusation Robertson denies. Pearson hired a private investigator to look into the threat and placed Robertson on administrative leave before deciding not to renew his contract when it expires in April.
Councilors then voted 4-3 to overturn Pearson’s decision and keep Robertson, despite legal objections from Pearson’s attorney and councilors in the minority.
Recent council meetings have drawn standing-room-only crowds of nearly 100 people, some carrying protest signs and shouting at councilors, either from the podium or from their seats. Overflow crowds gather in the back hallway around the public access recording booth so they can watch on small black and white screens as councilors raise their voices and speak over each other.
Last week, a man stood during the council meeting holding a sign calling for the recall of the four councilors in favor of terminating Pearson’s contract. No recall petitions have been taken out at Town Hall, according to the town clerk’s office.
The people who attend the meetings are familiar faces around town, and everyone seems to know everyone else in the room. Things often get personal, with accusations of conflicts of interest and ulterior motives.
MacDonald will occasionally gavel someone out of order, or ask the room to quiet down. At last week’s meeting, she asked a town attorney to read the council rules about unacceptable behavior, then had one resident escorted out by police after a tense exchange at the podium.
Even outside of meetings, residents’ interest has been intense.
Since December, the town has been inundated with requests from citizens under the Freedom of Access Act, including for council emails, the number of background checks done on employees and the pay rate for all municipal employees. The email from Pearson to Mead predicting his own demise was produced by the town in response to one of those requests.
“We’re not the only town that has issues,” MacDonald said in a telephone interview Friday. “But pitting neighbor against neighbor at any level is wrong. That, for me, is where things crossed the line.”
Robert Quinn, a town councilor often on the other side of the votes from MacDonald, recently described the political atmosphere in town as venomous.
“It’s all very unfortunate and doesn’t take us in the direction of getting the essential business of the town taken care of,” he said.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
The recent turmoil has left some residents wondering what comes next for Old Orchard Beach — and when they’ll get an explanation about what is going on behind the scenes.
Dennis Robillard, who has lived in town for 34 years, isn’t surprised by the town politics of late, but he still has questions about what led to Pearson’s firing.
“It’s politics, just like Augusta. I don’t think it’s a lot different than other communities,” he said Thursday as he headed into the post office.
For resident Donald Semo, Old Orchard Beach town politics is something to stay away from. He said he finds it irritating.
“The way things are going, I don’t even bother with it,” he said. “I think it’s kind of crazy.”
Pat Brown, a resident who is outspoken in her support of Pearson, said at a recent meeting that the town is continually embarrassed by the discord. “Since November, it’s been one dramatic scene after another,” she said.
Councilors have been too divided to agree to a closed-door discussion about Pearson or their other disagreements — that requires five votes — but they also haven’t fully disclosed the issues in front of the public.
MacDonald said she doesn’t want to get into personnel matters in a public session because she wants to avoid disparaging Pearson’s reputation.
“Sometimes it’s just not a good fit and that’s OK,” she said. “I know Old Orchard Beach will come to understand this was the right decision.”
Despite MacDonald’s confidence the town can move forward, uncertainty remains.
The council has yet to appoint an interim town manager. Louise Reid, the assistant town manager, is out on sick leave. MacDonald said the town’s employees are competent and can keep things going as the council works to put a new top administrator in place.
There also is pending legal action facing the town, and the potential for more.
The day the council terminated his contract, Pearson filed a request in York County Superior Court asking for a declaratory judgment on the council’s authority to override his decision about the public works director’s contract. Pearson’s attorney, John Richardson, said he also will file a separate lawsuit against the town if the council does not rescind its decision to fire the town manager.
“What they’ve done is invite a very serious lawsuit against the taxpayers of Old Orchard Beach,” Richardson said.
Richardson also said the council’s decision to fire Pearson has given the town a black eye and hurt its ability to hire a qualified replacement.
Councilor Michael Coleman, who voted against Pearson’s firing, agrees. “Who in the world is going to want to be manager of this town knowing you’re here one day and gone the next?” he asked his fellow councilors last Tuesday.
“I don’t know what lies in store for Old Orchard Beach, but it’s not going to be good,” said Councilor Robin Dayton, who was emphatic with her vote against firing Pearson.
MacDonald said she wants to turn the focus away from the recent meetings and back to strengthening communication among the council, town employees and residents. Laura Bolduc, the vice-chairwoman, agrees.
“I’ve never seen such a lack of communication between the administration and council and an inability for the board to have a healthy dialogue,” Bolduc said in a recent interview. “I just want people to start acting professional. There is no need for all of the divisiveness.”
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: