Appointments to the Cumberland County Civic Center’s board of trustees have been deferred until April, even though business community members have been pushing to replace trustees whose terms were expiring Dec. 31 as a possible way to revive lease negotiations with the Portland Pirates hockey team.
The Cumberland County commissioners decided Friday to postpone any changes in the makeup of the nine-member board so the current trustees will get full credit for their oversight of the $34 million civic center renovation that’s expected to be completed in late January or early February, said Neil Jamieson, chairman of the commissioners.
Jamieson said Monday that the delay has nothing to do with the fact that 44 people applied recently for the four unpaid trustee positions – most of them after Portland Community Chamber President Bill Becker publicly urged people to apply in the hope that the commissioners would appoint new trustees who want “to get the Portland Pirates back.”
“Our efforts had no connection to his efforts to solicit applications,” Jamieson said. “We thought this group (of trustees) should finish the race.”
The commissioners believe the current trustees should still be in office when they cut the ribbon at the civic center’s grand reopening, possibly at a special ceremony in March, Jamieson said. The vote Friday was 4-0, with one commissioner absent.
Jamieson said the commissioners didn’t consider the impact on current trustees when they solicited applications in early November for three seats now occupied by trustees whose terms expire at the end of the year. An initial Nov. 29 application deadline was extended to Dec. 6 after the death of Bill Troubh, a trustee who had served nearly one year of a three-year term.
In addition to filling Troubh’s seat, the commissioners are expected to reappoint or replace board members Neal Pratt, chairman, Gary Plummer and Joe Bruno. State law gives the commissioners great latitude in making those appointments.
The statute says the commissioners appoint civic center trustees to serve three-year terms, but it’s vague about exactly when appointments should happen, saying that trustees will hold office “until their respective successors are appointed and qualified.”
“They appoint when they feel it’s appropriate,” said Bill Whitten, acting county manager, who was a trustee for 12 years. “They can pretty much do whatever they want.”
Whitten said the commissioners have retained trustees in the past to maintain continuity and experience, including when they searched for and hired Steve Crane, the civic center’s general manager.
Usually, the commissioners get four or five applicants for the board of trustees, including incumbents, Whitten said. Like many unpaid public service positions, openings on the board sometimes draw little interest.
“There have been years when we didn’t have enough applications to fill vacancies,” Whitten said.
He said county officials “just didn’t think about” keeping the current trustees on the board when they first sought applications in November. At the time, Cianbro Corp. was expected to complete the renovation in mid-January, Whitten said.
The commissioners originally had planned to interview applicants on Monday.
When Becker issued a call for new trustees at a business community breakfast on Dec. 4, the commissioners had several applications, including three from incumbent trustees. By the end of the next day, more than 40 people had applied.
“That’s more interest in 36 hours than we’ve had in 36 years” since the civic center was built, said Commissioner James Cloutier.
Becker didn’t respond to repeated calls for comment Monday.
Chris O’Neil, a chamber member and spokesman, said Pratt, Plummer and Bruno deserve thanks and praise for their work in planning and overseeing the renovation.
“But this announcement makes it appear that filling seats at a ribbon-cutting takes priority over filling seats at civic center events,” O’Neil said. “We can’t waste time getting to work on the latter because there are big bills to pay.”
Whitten and other civic center officials have said that hosting a professional hockey team isn’t very profitable for the county, but some of the upgrades to the civic center were made to accommodate the Pirates.
Under a tentative lease agreement that fell through earlier this year, the Pirates would have received a share of concession revenue (57.5 percent) for the first time and the team’s per-game rental fee would have been reduced from $2,500 to $1,000. At the time, Pratt said it was the civic center’s goal to break even hosting Pirates’ games, while making more money on ice shows, concerts and other entertainment events.
Ron Cain, the new majority owner of the Pirates, said Monday that he sent a letter on Friday asking to resume negotiations for a lease at the civic center. Cain owns the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston, where the Pirates have played this season, and the Pirates’ practice rink in Saco.
Cain, who lives in Kennebunk and whose multifaceted Legacy Holding Co. is in Portsmouth, N.H., said he’s an experienced negotiator who hopes to reach a resolution that “may not please everyone but is palatable for both.”
“When you draw a line in the sand, it’s never really productive,” Cain said. “Usually there’s common ground you can both agree to so we can stop bouncing this ball around and we can move on.”
Cain said he must resolve the lease dispute by mid-January or consider other options, such as developing an arena in Saco, moving the team out of state or selling it.
Cain said Monday afternoon that he hadn’t heard back from the trustees.
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: