A decision to hire back William Baker, the city’s former community and business relations director, as a consultant was both unanimously supported by the Westbrook City Council Monday and vigorously scorned by mayoral candidate James Tranchemontagne – causing a heated exchange that could serve as a precursor to the November mayoral race.

Mayor Colleen Hilton, who said she is still undecided on whether she will seek re-election, said Baker will concentrate on city projects that have stalled since he left his position in April. These include the negotiations on tenants for the unoccupied One Riverfront Plaza office building, the Saccarappa Falls fish passage, and developments such as Dirigo Plaza and Blue Spruce Farm.

Baker will be working as an economic development consultant for the city, with a six-month contract stipulating that he work no more than 30 hours per week. He will be paid $75 an hour. Technically, the city is hiring Baker’s consulting firm, Maine Justice.

Past tension between Tranchemontagne and city officials bubbled over Monday, with Tranchemontagne and Westbrook business owner Deb Shangraw railing against the decision to bring back Baker. Shangraw was responsible last year for making public embarrassing emails between Baker and Hilton, in which Baker mocked several members of the community.

Tranchemontagne accused Hilton’s administration of nepotism and of having an “inappropriate” relationship with Baker. Council Vice President Mike Foley and other councilors bristled at Tranchemontagne’s remarks, and Foley repeatedly said he might be forced to have Tranchemontagne escorted out of the meeting by Police Chief Janine Roberts. The meeting adjourned before it came to that.

On Wednesday, Tranchemontagne said that he only used the word “inappropriate” to describe Baker’s emails to Hilton last year and was not implying anything else. Nonetheless, many councilors said they were disappointed by Tranchemontagne’s comments.

Tranchemontagne and Shangraw argued that the decision to hire Baker was made secretively, and posed questions about the city’s current administrative structure.

“This is the stuff that the everyday citizens of Westbrook are really tired of,” he said Wednesday.

“I’d like to have the public receive more information on the steps taken to fill such a large position,” Shangraw said Monday.

She also questioned the role of John Wipfler, who was brought in as an interim assistant city administrator this spring. “It leaves us discombobulated. What is the goal here?”

Tranchemontagne urged the council not to approve the contract.

“He was never qualified to be an economic development director,” he said.

He also suggested that Hilton hired Wipfler because they were friends from working in the health-care industry. Hilton said she never met Wipfler until she interviewed him for the job.

Baker began work June 28, nearly two weeks prior to the council’s approval. However, the mayor has the authority to spend up to $5,000 without council approval. Hilton said Baker had not yet reached that benchmark, and will not until after the council holds a second reading on the decision.

Tranchemontagne spoke for roughly six minutes on the agenda item Monday, going into Baker’s background and questioning his qualifications. At the end of the meeting, he spoke again during the second public comment period and criticized its three-minute time limit, refusing to step down.

On numerous occasions during Tranchemontagne’s heated comments, Foley asked him to remain “respectful,” and told him that his way of speaking was “intimidating.”

“I’m not going to sit down,” Tranchemontagne replied.

Councilor Victor Chau told Tranchemontagne that “it’s unfortunate you have to sink to this level.”

“There are ways to get answers without insulting people,” said Councilor Anna Turcotte.

Tranchemontagne said Wednesday that he believes if he were not running for mayor, he wouldn’t have been met with the same reaction from the council.

“There’s a definite divide on how I feel the city should grow, and on how you guys feel the city should grow,” he said at the meeting.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said during the meeting that hiring Baker as a consultant is “a temporary arrangement,” for between three and six months. He said that since the city brought in Wipfler, there have been added challenges, such as the recently discovered embezzlement of cash deposits by a now-former employee and the resignation of the chief financial officer, Alicia Gardiner.

Due to the added strain at City Hall, Hilton said, Bryant is concentrating mainly on the finance department, while Wipfler will pick up the administrative functions of overseeing all other departments. She said that left a need for someone to focus on economic development, especially as the city is experiencing an influx in development activity.

“We looked at both of these positions as bringing in talented people with strong backgrounds in order to get us through a restructure of the finance department and also to continue the momentum that was created under Bill Baker,” Bryant said.

While Baker’s email controversy affected his image with some members of the community, he has been credited with bringing a significant amount of new business activity to Westbrook.

“I welcome back Mr. Baker,” said Councilor John O’Hara.

Bryant added that the city is hoping the two temporary positions can provide some “breathing room” until the administration can decide on how the full-time positions would be structured.

“We can try to fill in some areas of the city with some good expertise in ways that doesn’t bind the city to long-term arrangements,” said Council President Brendan Rielly. “We need somebody focusing like a laser on those things.”

Hilton said Wednesday that she wanted to bring Baker in as soon as possible after the city became concerned that a potential deal at One Riverfront Plaza may fall through.

“That was a big concern, and requires a lot of intense work,” she said. “He (Baker) gets work done.”

Baker declined to comment on the position this week, instead deferring to city administration for information on the scope of his work. However, he told the American Journal two weeks ago that there was optimism about tenant negotations at One Riverfront Plaza.

Hilton said she’s received emails from members of the business community that are “thrilled” to hear that he might be back, even temporarily.

Shangraw was also critical Monday of the city finances, arguing that there were warning signs in past audits pointing to a lack of checks and balances that may have led to the recent embezzlement.

“We were warned about this for years,” she said.

When asked this week about the reaction to Baker’s hiring Monday, Shangraw said, “I think it just goes to the frustration of the leadership, or lack thereof, in many areas.”

Tranchemontagne, an independent, is the only candidate to officially announce for mayor so far. He and Republican candidate Ernest Porell lost to Hilton in 2013. Hilton said Wednesday that a big reason why she is still undecided is because of the vitriolic atmosphere in politics currently.

Tranchemontagne often takes to social media to express his discontent with city administration, and many city officials, including Hilton, argue that much of his information is not factual or is inflammatory. Just last week, he referred to the Downtown Westbrook Coalition as “a joke” on a Facebook comment, questioning its methods for revitalizing the downtown.

When asked if he believes his approach to public speaking may be “intimidating,” Tranchemontagne said he’s a business owner and not a “polished” public speaker.

“It’s frustrating to calm yourself down and be articulate,” he said. “But they can’t handle criticism.”

Tranchemontagne said Wednesday that he will be hosting a rally on Monday, July 25, to officially kick off his campaign for mayor.

In the meantime, Hilton said, the development boom in the city needs to be managed.

“Four months away from an election is not a good time for a drastic overhaul, but I need to tend to business,” she said.

Bill Baker, Westbrook’s former assistant city administrator and business and community relations director, is being hired as a temporary consultant for economic development.

Mayoral candidate James Tranchemontagne criticized the measure Monday, but city officials argue that Baker can help the city work on stalled economic development projects.

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