December 6, 2013

Civic center attracts would-be trustees, controversy

After Bill Becker calls for new trustees to 'get the Portland Pirates back,' more than 40 applicants – and renewed disputes – emerge.

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

A call for new trustees for the Cumberland County Civic Center has produced a crowd of applicants and renewed fighting over the failed lease negotiations between the arena and its former primary tenant, the Portland Pirates

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A call for new trustees for the Cumberland County Civic Center has produced a crowd of applicants and renewed fighting over the failed lease negotiations between the arena and its former primary tenant, the Portland Pirates

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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More than 40 people, including three incumbents, have sought applications for the unpaid positions, most of them since Portland Community Chamber President Bill Becker encouraged hundreds of people at a business breakfast Wednesday to apply.

Becker said he hopes to see new board members who want “to get the Portland Pirates back.” The trustees’ chairman said that comment, and Becker’s encouragement of challenges to three incumbents, shows that chamber officials have dropped any pretense of not taking sides.

“It’s clear to me that (Becker) is acting as a Pirates surrogate,” said Neal Pratt, chairman of the trustees and one of three whose terms expire at the end of this month. Pratt and trustees Garry Plummer and Joseph Bruno have applied for re-appointment. The Cumberland County commissioners will make the appointments, and choose someone to serve the remaining two years of the term of trustee Bill Troubh, who died last month.

Bill Whitten, the acting county manager, said the interest in the trustees’ posts is much greater than normal. In most years, the seats attract only four or five applicants, usually including the incumbents.

Whitten said about half of those who asked for applications had turned them in by Thursday afternoon. The deadline is noon Friday, he said, and the commissioners are expected to interview applicants Dec. 16.

Any new trustees will have to dive in quickly on the lease dispute with the Pirates. The civic center and the American Hockey League team said in April that they had the broad outlines of an agreement on a five-year lease, although the trustees pointed out that several components of the deal were unresolved.

The two sides negotiated, mostly by email, through the summer, until the trustees sent the Pirates a final offer in late August and gave the team 48 hours to sign it. The Pirates refused, filed a lawsuit seeking to have a judge impose the terms announced in April, and said they would play all of this season’s home games in Lewiston. The lawsuit is still pending.

The Portland Regional Chamber got involved late last month, inviting both sides to return to the table. The Pirates accepted, but the trustees refused, saying they had already given their best offer and weren’t going to negotiate with a lawsuit pending.

Commissioner Jim Cloutier said he understands that the dispute has attracted new applicants but he hopes that anyone who applies understands that the job requires significant time and will concern issues other than the Pirates.

“It’s a difficult job,” he said. “They meet at least once a month, the meetings always last two or three hours, minimum. It’s asking for a really big commitment and usually there’s other stuff, too, like committees – and these days, lawsuits.”

Cloutier said the commissioners only want a deal that makes financial sense for paying off the taxpayer-funded bond for the renovations. Pratt, who said this fall that he was undecided about seeking re-appointment to the board, said the lawsuit convinced him to stay on. “It’s unfinished business,” he said. “I would feel uncomfortable leaving.”

Pratt didn’t try to hide his unhappiness with Becker and the chamber, pointing out that Jim Cohen, a lawyer for the Pirates, is chairman of the Portland Regional Chamber, which issued the request for renewed talks. Becker heads the Portland Community Chamber, a sub-group of the regional chamber focusing on Portland issues.

Becker said lawyers with firms involved in the dispute on either side stepped out of the room when the regional chamber’s board discussed its letter to the trustees and the Pirates calling for a resumption of talks.

(Continued on page 2)

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