A Gorham town councilor pleaded guilty Tuesday to operating under the influence and will spend two nights at Lake Region High School through an alternative sentencing program.
Benjamin Hartwell, 34, was charged with drunken driving on March 22 when he drove his Saturn off Fort Hill Road in Gorham around 12:30 a.m., hit a tree and rolled over, totaling the car. His blood-alcohol content was over 0.15 percent. The legal limit for driving is 0.08 percent.
Under a plea agreement, Hartwell was fined $750, his license was suspended for 150 days and he will participate in the alternative sentencing program offered to first-time drunken-driving offenders. He must report to Lake Region High School on Sept. 5 and will be released on Sept. 7. If he doesn’t complete the program, he will have to spend three days in jail.
Hartwell’s arrest reignited a debate among Gorham councilors about what crimes should require a councilor to resign.
The town’s charter says councilors must vacate their seats if convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude,” but that term is not defined.
The council first discussed defining the term two years ago, when Councilor Suzanne Phillips pleaded guilty to operating under the influence after she sideswiped two parked cars on School Street in Gorham and drove away.
At the time, the council decided drunken driving did not constitute a crime of moral turpitude.
Now, the council is considering having voters decide whether to define the term as any Class A, B, C or D crime, which would include drunken driving. The council will hold a public hearing in September on the proposal to put the question out to voters in November. If a definition is put in place, Hartwell and Phillips would not be affected.
After his appearance in the Cumberland County Courthouse Tuesday, Hartwell said he’s had “overwhelming support” to stay on the council, which he plans to do.
“I apologize to the community for bringing this negative attention,” he said. “I’m glad nobody was hurt.”
Hartwell said he attended a driver education class last weekend and learned that, when people’s tolerance for alcohol increases, they may feel fine to drive but their reaction time is impaired just the same.
He said he wished he knew that before getting in trouble and wants to make other people aware of it.
Aside from that, he said, “I’m glad it’s over.”
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: