STANDISH – With its calls for greater transparency in local government, the Standish Watchdog Group, a highly organized group of residents, is driving up attendance at Town Council meetings and, in the process, offending at least one Standish councilor.

The new, nonprofit organization, which launched its website on Jan. 15, has five board members, about two-dozen volunteers, a donor network, a phone line, an emergency text messaging service, three attorneys on call, and places weekly ads in the local Shopper’s Guide, according to Dan Kasprzyk, the group’s unofficial spokesman and a driving force behind the effort.

The group is not alleging that Standish officials have failed to meet the notification standards required by state law or the town charter, said Kasprzyk, an IT consultant who also is a member of the School Administrative District 6 Board of Directors.

Instead, the group contends that the town is doing a bare minimum of mandated notifications (including advertising) – just enough to ensure compliance with rules and statutes, but not enough to ensure robust public awareness or participation.

“Standish Watchdog Group was created to fill a void in the town of Standish,” reads the mission statement on Standishwatchdog.com. “We are comprised of a group of residents and businesses that are tired of learning what’s happening (or, should we say, what has happened) in our town after it’s too late to make a choice, or even provide an opinion or comment. Minimum advertising by the town of Standish is not acceptable.”

The watchdogs seem to be bending the council to their will.

Although the council had held a televised workshop on a municipal tax increment financing application in late September, the councilors scheduled another public workshop on Jan. 28, after Kasprzyk complained about a lack of transparency, according to Town Manager Gordon Billington.

Kasprzyk said that, according to the digital copies of the Standish website that he archives, the original Sept. 24 workshop was publicized simply as a “TIF discussion” on the town’s calendar, without an agenda or description attached. Kasprzyk said he was the only person who attended the meeting.

“I found out about it by accident,” Kasprzyk said. “It wasn’t advertised in any publication.”

“Is that well advertised?” he added, referring to the item on the town’s digital calendar. “There’s no agenda for the workshop. There’s zero. There’s nothing inside there.”

In an interview, Councilor Lynn Olson said that although she welcomes the increased interest in municipal matters, she does not understand the group’s critique.

“I haven’t even looked at their website because I don’t want to give them a click,” Olson said. “They seem to be out there on some kind of a vendetta, on some kind of an issue, and I don’t know what it is.”

“I know they were running ads in the paper,” she went on to say. “They were talking about things, when the reality is our processes are working fine, and nothing is happening that is hidden in any way. If they’re chasing after some kind of bugs around here, I don’t know what they are. I have no idea what they’re looking at. I have no idea why they formed all of this. I don’t.”

Wayne Newbegin, a former councilor and a member of the group’s board of directors, said they are merely trying to provide relevant, accurate information on town business to the public.

“We’re not trying to go after the council or anything like that,” Newbegin said. “We just want the public to get involved.”

Olson encouraged the group members to stop standing on the “sidelines,” and to get involved with town committees. She also said that Kasprzyk seemed to be relishing a moment in the spotlight.

“I think Dan’s enjoying the attention,” Olson said.

Kasprzyk said that he had no personal dispute with the council.

“I’m not on a vendetta,” Kasprzyk said. “I’m disappointed that Ms. Olson feels the way she does, and I encourage her to look at the Standish Watchdog Group website and see what we’re all about.”

The group has also criticized the council for not holding a town meeting vote on the TIF application. Since the application does not include a credit enhancement agreement, a provision that allows the town to share new revenues with a developer, the council is not required to call a town-meeting vote on the application, according to the town’s attorney, Ron Epstein.

“Standish Watchdog Group reviewed the Town Charter,” reads a statement on the group’s website, “and while the Town Council may believe that a town vote is not required legally, there is no clause or article that prevents the Town Council from allowing its residents to vote legally on this very important issue.”

In an interview, Councilor Lou Stack disputed the logic behind the group’s argument.

“Using that rationale, we could not have any council orders come before us,” Stack said. “We could put everything out to town-meeting vote. It just sort of happens that the council gets to vote on this. We were perfectly happy to have gone out to a town meeting, if in fact we wanted a credit enhancement. But we didn’t want the credit enhancement in there. That was a mistake.”

Although the group’s board of directors is stacked with recent Republican political candidates, Kasprzyk said that the group is non-partisan.

Board member Amy Dunning-Stepnik unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the SAD 6 board in November, and Newbegin lost to Olson in last year’s council election. Kasprzyk, Newbegin, and Dunning-Stepnik were all endorsed on the Standish Republican Committee ticket in that election. The other two board members are Jennifer O’Gara and Walter Wasson, who is a delegate for the Standish Republicans.

Kasprzyk said that the group is not affiliated with the Standish Republicans, and that the board is primarily made up of Republicans due to the happenstance of his social network, not party affiliation.

“This isn’t about Democrats and Republicans,” Kasprzyk said. “If you’re hanging out with these people all the time, who do you tend to do things with?”

Kasprzyk said that there are Democrats that volunteer for the group, but declined to provide their names.

According to Billington, it’s fair to credit the group for convincing more than 80 residents to attend the recent TIF workshop. Kasprzyk said the group also deserves some credit for the high attendance at the Jan. 14 town meeting vote on a school district withdrawal study.

“Based on the number of hits, the number of phone calls, and the number of emails I would say that we have absolutely increased the attendance to those events,” Kasprzyk said.

“Eighty-five people attended a meeting on municipal TIFs,” Kasprzyk said. “Eighty-five people. That’s huge when you have that many people that are interested in this. Our group’s been around since Jan. 15. If we’ve been around since Jan. 15 and you’ve got 85 people attending, doesn’t that make you wonder if the town’s being transparent enough to the residents of the town?”


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