Here’s the typical short list of priorities for Old Orchard Beach, as least the way local businessman George Kerr sees it, as Maine’s summertime mecca awakens from another long winter:
“Make sure we have our (parking) meters up, make sure you can generate revenue, make sure you have personnel for the summer, clean the beach, get the sidewalks clean and get the doors open so we can say, ‘Welcome!’ ” said Kerr, owner of the local Surf 6 Oceanfront Grille & Bar and various of other tourist-related properties, in an interview last week.
Now here’s a sign, literally, of what currently stands in the way of Old Orchard Beach’s raison d’etre:
“The Town Clerk’s office will be closed starting Friday, April 12, to certify Recall Petitions,” read the printed notice by the entrance to the town hall last week. “If this is urgent, please go upstairs to the Town Manager’s Office for assistance.”
That or burrow into a sand dune and pray for this community to regain its sanity.
Friday afternoon, Town Clerk Kim McLaughlin notified three local town councilors — Michael Coleman, Robin Dayton and Robert Quinn — that petitions calling for their ouster contained enough valid signatures to force an election on whether they should be booted from office.
This on the heels of an identical finding earlier last week that has the town council’s four other members — Chairwoman Sharri MacDonald, Vice Chairwoman Laura Bolduc, Dana Furtado and Linda Mailhot — also facing the democracy’s ultimate indignity.
You heard that right, lucky citizens of anywhere-but-Old Orchard Beach. Sometime between now and the first day of summer on June 21, the entire elected leadership for one of Maine’s highest-profile communities could very well be thrown out on its collective keister.
Goodbye, Maine’s “Garden by the Sea.” Hello, “Dysfunction Junction.”
“We’re all very embarrassed,” said Kerr, who over the years has served both on the town council and as Old Orchard Beach’s four-term state representative. “There are no winners here. The taxpayer, again, is the loser.”
Old Orchard Beach’s latest woes are, as these things tend to be, complicated.
But at its barest essence, this looming political Armageddon began when the aforementioned four-councilor majority voted in early March to part ways with Town Manager Mark Pearson — the town’s fourth manager in the past decade.
Pearson’s heave-ho was preceded by a laundry list of internal squabbles that included Public Works Director Bill Robertson being investigated for allegedly threatening to “shoot” Pearson. Robertson, who was fired by Pearson only to be rehired in a 4-3 vote by the council, later claimed it was all a misunderstanding — he actually wanted to “moon” Pearson.
But we digress. Suffice it to say that Pearson’s dismissal didn’t go over well with the council’s three-member minority, along with a sizable chunk of the local citizenry.
In fact, council meetings since have devolved routinely into nasty exchanges not just between the two council factions, but also with irate citizens in the audience. Topsham attorney John Richardson, representing Pearson in a lawsuit to get his job back, will never forget one recent session that came as close to outright revolution as he’s ever witnessed.
“It was the most raw form of democracy I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Richardson last week, recalling how the agenda (not to mention Roberts Rules of Parliamentary Procedure) disappeared beneath a tsunami of name calling, finger pointing and promises that the council’s days were numbered.
It was no idle threat: No sooner had critics of MacDonald, Bolduc, Furtado and Mailhot set about circulating their recall petitions when a second citizens group, Taxpayers for Truth, set its sights on Coleman, Dayton and Quinn.
And now that the 815-signature threshold has been surpassed on recall petitions aimed at each and every one of them, it’s not just the seagulls down at the pier screeching like there’s no tomorrow. The entire town of Old Orchard Beach finds itself, like the Fiesta Loca down at Palace Playland, “rising, falling, and spinning out of control!”
Consider these citizen pleas from the minutes of the council’s March 20 meeting, compiled under the irony-laden heading “Good and Welfare”:
“Richard Greely: You have a chance to turn back. You can fix what has been done. The Manager is gone. Talk with each other. We had an election. Do you want to pit family against family? It’s time to take a breath, discuss, listen and iron your differences out.”
“Kathy Smith: Media folks are making comments about Old Orchard Beach. … Things should not be on Facebook. You are in leadership; you need to have some dignity.”
Or this cryptic revelation …
“Freddie Dolgan: Wanted to clear up that there is no gang of 3 … two maybe but not three.”
All of which leaves old-timers like Kerr, who’s lived in Old Orchard Beach all his life, desperate for a way out of this morass. After Pearson’s departure, Kerr offered his services for free as interim town manager “to try and be a go-between between the four and the three.”
(Instead, the council hired interim town manager Robert Peabody — also known as the most courageous public servant in the great state of Maine.)
Kerr’s biggest complaint: While the two factions fight, the infinitely more important business of getting Old Orchard Beach up and running for the summer is at best an afterthought.
And while the town council normally would be hard at work in the coming weeks preparing a municipal budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, Kerr adds, this bunch will at best have one eye on the budget and the other on campaigning to save their political skins.
But here’s what drives Kerr most crazy: Clearly, this mess goes way beyond who liked the former town manager and who didn’t. Yet for the life of him, he can’t find the root of all the infighting.
“There’s always something,” Kerr said. “I learned that in Augusta — there’s always something behind the scenes. I have not detected it yet, but I know it’s something.”
Kerr, if you haven’t already noticed, loves his hometown like few others. Sure it’s sandy and crowded and gets a little rowdy when the bikers show up on hot Saturday nights in July and August, but it’s also a tightly-knit community that over the years has suffered far more ridicule than it deserves.
A entire town council getting bounced, like so many beach balls, just before the tourists arrive? What could be worse for business?
“They’ve got to come out from under the ether at some point,” said Kerr. “I swear, if they’d just watch themselves on TV, they’d wake up.”
And smell the fried dough.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: