December 6, 2013

Bill Nemitz: In civic center smackdown, trust the trustees

In a hockey game, this would be known as getting blindsided.

Just over a year ago, the Portland Regional Chamber bestowed its prestigious “Robert R. Masterton Award for Leadership in Economic Development” on Neal Pratt, five-time chairman of the Cumberland County Civic Center’s board of trustees, for his tireless oversight of the civic center’s soon-to-be-completed $34 million renovation.

Fast forward to the chamber’s monthly Eggs & Issues breakfast Wednesday, when a top chamber official essentially called for Pratt’s head on a platter.

“We certainly would like to get people (on the board of trustees) who would like to get the Portland Pirates back. I think some turnover is good,” explained Bill Becker, who exhorted those in the breakfast crowd to apply for one of the four available seats on the civic center’s governing body. Including, we should note, the seat Chairman Pratt has no desire to give up.

Perplexed? Imagine how Neal Pratt must feel.

Let’s go to the replay:

In September, after months of bare-knuckle negotiations on a new lease for the Pirates at the civic center, the AHL hockey team sued the civic center and, by extension, the taxpayers of Cumberland County.

In a complaint that should get two minutes in the penalty box for impersonating a valid legal argument, the Pirates claimed that a one-page “term sheet” approved by the trustees months earlier constitutes a “binding agreement” pending the signing of a lease. Thus, they argued, they should be allowed back into the civic center under those terms once the building’s front-to-back facelift is completed early next year.

After the lawsuit was filed, the two sides engaged in mandatory mediation with Maine Superior Court Chief Justice Thomas Humphrey. But those intensive talks, like the negotiations that preceded them, failed to end the standoff between the Pirates (who want more money) and the civic center trustees (who insist to this day that they’ve handed over their last nickel).

Enter Portland Regional Chamber CEO Chris Hall, who last month contacted both sides in an effort to get them back to the bargaining table. The Pirates jumped at the chance, while the trustees said thanks, but this thing is now in court and that final offer was in fact their final offer.

That’s when the gloves came off.

Just before this week’s Eggs & Issues main event – Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew vs. the Affordable Care Act – Becker took the podium to decry the civic center/Pirates impasse.

He also noted the four openings on the nine-member board – three-year terms will soon expire for Pratt, Gary Plummer and Joe Bruno, while two years remain on the late Bill Troubh’s term – and urged his fellow chamber members to fill out one of the applications on their tables for appointment to the board by the county commissioners.

Translation: Let’s send Pratt, who already has applied for reappointment, packing. And while we’re at it, let’s fill the other three slots with trustees who are (wink, wink) a little more business-friendly.

Now I know Portland is a relatively small town and people’s paths cross all the time. Still, it’s worth noting here that Jim Cohen, chairman of the Portland Regional Chamber’s board of directors, also happens to be Jim Cohen, attorney for the Portland Pirates in their lawsuit against the Cumberland County Civic Center.

In a hockey game, that would be known as too many Jim Cohens on the ice.

Asked about the rather glaring coincidence Thursday, Cohen explained that the Portland Regional Chamber is actually a “confederation” of smaller community chambers. Becker, while using the Portland Regional Chamber’s heavily attended breakfast to throw Pratt & Co. under the Pirates’ bus, is president of the Portland Community Chamber and was acting in that capacity, Cohen said.

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