Those who have been paying attention to a recent dispute between some Scarborough town councilors and the Conservation Commission must be scratching their heads at this point, wondering what all the fuss is about.

For those who missed the stories in this week’s and last week’s papers, here’s a recap: The dispute arose a couple weeks ago at a Town Council meeting, where councilors took a vote to go into executive session, apparently to discuss the Conservation Commission. The vote failed, however, when three councilors – Sylvia Most, Judith Roy and Carol Rancourt – voted against it and complained they didn’t know what was going on because Council Chairman Jeff Messer hadn’t kept them as informed as he had the other three councilors. Conservation Commission Chairman Paul Austin also objected to the executive session.

As Austin was driving home after the meeting, he decided to turn around and go back to Town Hall to see if town councilors were talking about him. When he returned, he found the four town councilors who had voted in favor of the executive session – Messer, Richard Sullivan, Michael Wood and Ron Ahlquist – all of whom say they were not discussing the Conservation Commission. Austin then proceeded to have a heated discussion with Town Manager Ron Owens in the hallway, while the four councilors hung around and waited for it to end.

How heated? Depends on whom you ask.

All of this seems to have stemmed from some concerns members of the Conservation Commission raised about the 154-unit Eastern Village housing development, including what they consider to be improper easements and flawed storm water management plans. Conservation Commission members felt the concerns were ignored when the Planning Board approved the development.

Messer, who made up for whatever communication was lacking last week with lengthy e-mails to both the Conservation Commission and Town Council, believes the conservation commissioners overstepped their authority by reporting their concerns to the Conservation Law Foundation and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Still wondering what all the fuss is about? You’re not the only one.

The whole thing is about as clear as marsh muck, and the way it’s being handled seems beyond bizarre. It’s unclear why an executive session was necessary when conservation commissioners are not town employees, which would make it permissible as a personnel matter, and there appears to be no pending litigation against the town, which would make it permissible as a legal matter.

Regardless, what is quite clear is that the Conservation Commission can play an important role advising town boards on environmental matters. That is particularly important in a town like Scarborough, which is home to more than a few environmental gems, not the least of which is the state’s largest salt marsh.

Ironically, as this dispute is erupting, one of the most important projects for the Conservation Commission is about to begin – mapping of the town’s vernal pools. Mapping these pools, which are critical to the ecosystem, is an important project for the environment and any homeowner interested in building on their property.

The quicker the town can put these petty squabbles behind it and refocus on important work like this, the better.

Brendan Moran, editor


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