March 11, 2013

Turmoil roils Old Orchard Beach politics

Four town managers have come and gone in 10 years, and the atmosphere is getting uglier.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Last November, Old Orchard Beach Town Manager Mark Pearson wrote to the manager of a neighboring town about some troubles with his Town Council.

After a series of hostile council meetings, Town Manager Mark Pearson was fired last week in a 4-3 vote, and his attorney is threatening a lawsuit.

"They have four votes to get rid of me if they want," Pearson told Kennebunkport Town Manager Larry Mead in an email message. "They can't find a legitimate reason -- so their method is to harass me through requests for information, bog me down with extra requests, request meetings with me on Friday nights at 6 p.m., etc.," he wrote.

An upcoming council meeting would be fun, Pearson wrote to his friend. "Don't miss the lynching!"

Such tension is not unusual in Old Orchard Beach, where four town managers have come and gone in 10 years. But even by those standards, politics has gotten ugly here in recent months -- and potentially expensive.

After a series of hostile council meetings, Pearson finally did get fired last week in a 4-3 vote, and his attorney is threatening a lawsuit. Councilors gave no reason for their decision to terminate Pearson's two-year contract. He was hired in February 2012.

Residents, embarrassed by the spectacle and frustrated by the council's inability to get along, have implored members to stop the eye rolling, interrupting and yelling that have become a routine part of meetings. Councilors and residents alike have referred to it all as a circus.

"The 'he said, she said' needs to stop," former Town Councilor Shawn O'Neill said at one meeting. "It seems to be a lot more apparent than in years past."

Even Sharri MacDonald, the council chairwoman and a state representative, has called the meetings convoluted, and admitted there is little or no communication between councilors and the town administration.

"We're pretty dysfunctional up here, if you didn't notice," she told the crowd at a meeting in December.

FIVE FINANCE DIRECTORS

Pearson is the third town manager to leave the post since Jim Thomas's departure in 2007 after four tumultuous years. There have been five finance directors in the past 15 months, including three since February 2012.

Candidates running for Town Council often cite the attitude of board members as something they want to see change. Last November, when the council expanded from five to seven members after a charter change, 12 people ran for five open seats.

The turnout at town meetings has been especially large this winter as the council argued about the town manager, financial control of the library and the fate of the town's public works director.

Public Works Director Bill Robertson allegedly threatened to shoot Pearson -- an accusation Robertson denies. Pearson hired a private investigator to look into the threat and placed Robertson on administrative leave before deciding not to renew his contract when it expires in April.

Councilors then voted 4-3 to overturn Pearson's decision and keep Robertson, despite legal objections from Pearson's attorney and councilors in the minority.

Recent council meetings have drawn standing-room-only crowds of nearly 100 people, some carrying protest signs and shouting at councilors, either from the podium or from their seats. Overflow crowds gather in the back hallway around the public access recording booth so they can watch on small black and white screens as councilors raise their voices and speak over each other.

Last week, a man stood during the council meeting holding a sign calling for the recall of the four councilors in favor of terminating Pearson's contract. No recall petitions have been taken out at Town Hall, according to the town clerk's office.

(Continued on page 2)

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