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

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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.

The people who attend the meetings are familiar faces around town, and everyone seems to know everyone else in the room. Things often get personal, with accusations of conflicts of interest and ulterior motives.

MacDonald will occasionally gavel someone out of order, or ask the room to quiet down. At last week's meeting, she asked a town attorney to read the council rules about unacceptable behavior, then had one resident escorted out by police after a tense exchange at the podium.

Even outside of meetings, residents' interest has been intense.

Since December, the town has been inundated with requests from citizens under the Freedom of Access Act, including for council emails, the number of background checks done on employees and the pay rate for all municipal employees. The email from Pearson to Mead predicting his own demise was produced by the town in response to one of those requests.

"We're not the only town that has issues," MacDonald said in a telephone interview Friday. "But pitting neighbor against neighbor at any level is wrong. That, for me, is where things crossed the line."

Robert Quinn, a town councilor often on the other side of the votes from MacDonald, recently described the political atmosphere in town as venomous.

"It's all very unfortunate and doesn't take us in the direction of getting the essential business of the town taken care of," he said.

WHAT COMES NEXT?

The recent turmoil has left some residents wondering what comes next for Old Orchard Beach -- and when they'll get an explanation about what is going on behind the scenes.

Dennis Robillard, who has lived in town for 34 years, isn't surprised by the town politics of late, but he still has questions about what led to Pearson's firing.

"It's politics, just like Augusta. I don't think it's a lot different than other communities," he said Thursday as he headed into the post office.

For resident Donald Semo, Old Orchard Beach town politics is something to stay away from. He said he finds it irritating.

"The way things are going, I don't even bother with it," he said. "I think it's kind of crazy."

Pat Brown, a resident who is outspoken in her support of Pearson, said at a recent meeting that the town is continually embarrassed by the discord. "Since November, it's been one dramatic scene after another," she said.

Councilors have been too divided to agree to a closed-door discussion about Pearson or their other disagreements -- that requires five votes -- but they also haven't fully disclosed the issues in front of the public.

MacDonald said she doesn't want to get into personnel matters in a public session because she wants to avoid disparaging Pearson's reputation.

"Sometimes it's just not a good fit and that's OK," she said. "I know Old Orchard Beach will come to understand this was the right decision."

Despite MacDonald's confidence the town can move forward, uncertainty remains.

The council has yet to appoint an interim town manager. Louise Reid, the assistant town manager, is out on sick leave. MacDonald said the town's employees are competent and can keep things going as the council works to put a new top administrator in place.

There also is pending legal action facing the town, and the potential for more.

The day the council terminated his contract, Pearson filed a request in York County Superior Court asking for a declaratory judgment on the council's authority to override his decision about the public works director's contract. Pearson's attorney, John Richardson, said he also will file a separate lawsuit against the town if the council does not rescind its decision to fire the town manager.

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