HARPSWELL — The bill is in.

Harpswell spent just more than $60,000 on legal fees as it tried to ward off attempts to save a water tower that was disused for decades, according to Town Administrator Kristi Eiane. Representatives of Friends of Mitchell Field, the group that sued the town, starting the contentious legal battle, place the blame for that bill on the town selectmen.

The ordeal began in March, when residents voted at the annual town meeting to have the tower demolished, rejecting a proposal to allow an outside entity take control of the tower, repair and maintain it and pursue repurposing it.

The group that wanted to take over and preserve the tower, the Friends of Mitchell Field, was shocked to see its proposal rejected. Claiming that the vote was the result of misinformation, the group began collecting signatures for a petition calling for a revote. The group collected the necessary signatures, but the selectmen rejected the petition, arguing that the town needed to honor the town meeting vote.

In late July, the Friends of Mitchell Field sued the town over the petition. In September, a judge ruled against them. The group appealed that decision, but the court allowed crews to tear down the tower on Sept. 20. The unexpected legal fees have blown through the town’s $50,000 legal budget for 2018, resulting in selectmen asking voters for an additional $30,000 to put toward legal fees.

Following the demolition, Selectman Rick Daniel said he hoped that the Friends of Mitchell Field and the town could move past the issue and work together on the future of Mitchell Field, a sentiment echoed by Eiane, who said she was ready to turn the page on this chapter.

Immediately following the demolition, frequent Friends of Mitchell Field spokesperson Robert McIntyre attacked the selectmen for defending the town from the lawsuit his group filed.

“In the calmest possible voice, I would like to point out that the town has spent vastly more money on legal expenses than the full repair of the structural problems, most of the painting and buying several years to search for cell phone coverage,” said McIntyre. “It’s a waste and a disgrace to the town, and the selectboard and the town administration have embarrassed the town.”

The Friends of Mitchell Field have declined to share how much the group spent on legal fees.

In an interview last week, Selectman David Chipman, who had supported the Friends’ petition, argued that the court was wrong to rule against the Friends of Mitchell Field.

Chipman also inferred that Daniel and Selectman Kevin Johnson were the ones responsible for the lawsuit and the subsequent legal bills.

“Everything I did, from the very beginning to the very end, was to keep the town out of court,” said Chipman. “If you want to place blame, you have to look somewhere else. I’m not going to say where you should look, but perhaps you can guess.”

Despite a judge’s ruling that validated the town’s actions, Chipman maintains that his fellow selectmen acted “unlawfully” in rejecting the group’s petition, a claim he made earlier this year.

“They did it in anger,” said Chipman. “They were just angry through the whole thing, and I was accused of being a liar and a cheat.”

“I think if we’d had a reasoned debate based on facts, then we wouldn’t have ended up in court,” he added.

Yet Chipman admits that he was motivated by personal feelings in his zeal for saving the water tower.

“When it was taken down, it was sort of like losing an old friend,” said Chipman referring to the demolition. “It was like watching an old friend’s execution.”

“It was an icon,” said Chipman. “It’s something that’s always been there. You’ve always seen it and it means it’s your hometown.”

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CORRECTION: Selectmen Kevin Johnson did try to reach out to the reporter with a comment, but was unable to connect before publication.

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