Chelsea seeks return to normal (Feb. 24, 2011)

Election set for March in first meeting since official’s arrest

By Mechele Cooper
Staff Writer

CHELSEA — The town took its first step toward restoring normal operations Wednesday by scheduling an election and special town meeting for the end of March.

Marshall Swan, center, applauds comments made at a special Chelsea town meeting Wednesday evening. Swan’s wife, town selectman Carole, was recently charged with aggravated forgery, theft and improper compensation after allegedly arranging a kickback involving the town’s purchase of road sand.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Chelsea selectman Mike Pushard, left, and attorney Stephen Langsdorf listen to residents during a special Chelsea town meeting Wednesday evening.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

 

At a highly unusual selectmen’s meeting Wednesday — the first since the arrest of Board of Selectmen Chairman Carole Swan —  Stephen Langsdorf, an Augusta attorney hired to represent the town, told residents their “number one priority” was to elect a second selectman “as soon as possible.”

Carole Swan, 52, was arrested Feb. 10 and charged with aggravated forgery, theft and improper compensation after allegedly arranging a kickback involving the town’s purchase of road sand.

Her arrest, amid a widening investigation, has idled official town business.

The urgency of electing a replacement for Selectman Tanya Condon, who resigned in November 2010, was readily apparent as Selectman Michael Pushard, the last functioning selectman on the three-person board, brought the meeting to order at 6 p.m. then deferred immediately to Langsdorf.

Langsdorf told residents the meeting was “a unique circumstance,” with Condon’s vacancy and Swan’s arrest making no official quorum or parliamentary procedure possible.

Yet town business needs to continue, he said, as Swan continues to serve. But bail conditions prohibit Swan from entering the Town Office or associating with town officials.

“The number one priority is to schedule an election for a new selectperson,” Langsdorf said. “Then, schedule an open town meeting on March 31 to look at extending professional fees for an investigation. It’s been suggested it would be well worth the effort.

“The only other action (for Wednesday’s meeting) is to authorize paying normal bills and payroll to keep the town running,” Langsdorf told residents. “No substantial action of any nature will be taken until two selectmen (are on the board).”

The 90-minute meeting was attended by some 300 townspeople, with three law enforcement officers on hand: two from the sheriff’s office and one Maine State Police trooper.

During an hourlong open mic, residents addressed Langsdorf, Pushard, Town Clerk Flavia “Cookie” Kelly and Town Manager Angela Gordon. Some used the opportunity to chastise officials, past and present, for failing to oversee town contracting; others offered words of encouragement for Pushard and best wishes for the town’s future endeavors.

Resident Joe Mills bristled that current town officials “are not leaving our kids and grandkids much to be proud of” and drew applause saying town officials “can’t just sit there and say you didn’t know what was going on. … It takes two to vote a certain way. If you say you didn’t know, you don’t belong there.”

Former Selectman Guy Berthiaume spoke later, almost in response, saying he regretted not getting a raise for former Town Manager Mary Sabins.

“We had a great, great town manager. She was doing a great job,” Berthiaume said. “I wanted to give her a raise. When it came time to step up to the plate, I did not step up.”

Referring to a Kennebec Journal report that showed Marshall Swan earned $77,198 to patch up parts of Dondero Road in 2006, Berthiaume said, “If someone had told me were were going to spend $77,000 to patch a road, I would have said something about it.”

By the time the meeting was over, Pushard had thanked the crowd for attending, calling it a “good, positive meeting … very respectful.”

But the meeting offered plenty of reminders of how dysfunctional the town has become.

To pay the town’s routine bills, Pushard had to make motions that went unseconded. After a “discussion period” normally reserved for debate amongst selectmen, Pushard then single-handedly approved warrants to pay the town’s bills.

One of the bills he approved: a $25,380 payment to Frank Monroe, of Whitefield. Monroe is the contractor named in the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Department investigation as allegedly inflating the town’s bill for road sand so Carole Swan could receive a kickback.

Then Jerry Nault — finance manager for Regional School Unit 12, of which Chelsea is a member — shocked the forum by asking Langsdorf whether the town had received a letter recently from the RSU 12 attorney.

Chelsea owes the district $386,569, Nault informed Langsdorf, including several thousand dollars from a federal grant used to build the new Chelsea Elementary School that’s currently under construction.

Linda Leotsakos, a former Planning Board member, took to the microphone to remind Pushard the town’s budget season is in full swing, and that a budget must be in place by Town Meeting in June.

“Budget planning usually starts a month ago,” she warned.

Mild sparring ensued over how to seat a road advisory committee robust enough to oversee the town’s road work. The controversial measure was being debated prior to Swan’s arrest and is at the root of Chelsea’s alleged contracting woes.

Swan and Pushard had defeated a Planning Board’s proposal in January for a citizen advisory road committee, instead appointing a five-person committee exclusively of local contractors.

The panel was to include Marshall Swan, the husband of Carole Swan; and four others.
Wednesday night, Langsdorf indicated the town should make another effort at crafting broader rules for town procurement and purchasing “on par with other towns and with state law.”

He also suggested a raft of other reforms: moving selectmen’s meetings from mornings to evenings “so people can attend,” making disputed road records available at the Town Office counter, and appropriating $50,000 — a random number, he admitted — to pay for an independent investigation into the town’s finances.

Ultimately, Pushard’s motion to hold a municipal election on March 29 to fill Condon’s vacated seat passed 1-0. Polls will be open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Town Office.

Langsdorf said nomination papers would be available today through March 4 at the Town Office.

Any resident of Chelsea who wants to run to fill the 15 months remaining on Condon’s seat must file papers by March 10, Langsdorf said. Absentee ballots will be available at least 10 days before the vote.

Candidates must collect a minimum of 25 and no more than 100 signatures to be nominated.

“The last election, there were rumors and allegations on how that election was handled,” former former deputy treasurer Carol Belanger told Langsdorf. “Who is going to be monitoring the ballots. Will be you be overseeing it?”

Langsdorf indicated town officials would administer the election, though he would have a role.

Pushard then made a motion for the special town meeting to be held at 6:30 p.m. March 31 at Chelsea Elementary School. The motion also passed 1-0.

At one point, Leotsakos got a standing ovation from a handful of attendees by asking Langsdorf to write a letter to Carole Swan’s attorney asking her to resign.

“Frankly,” Langsdorf responded, “I’ve already told her attorney it would be a good idea, and that there are several townspeple who feel that way.”

Then, Leotsakos asked for a show of hands from everyone who didn’t want Swan to resign.

Only one hand went up: the hand of Marshall Swan.

City Editor Bob Mentzinger contributed to this report.

Mechele Cooper — 623-3811, ext. 408
mcooper@centralmaine.com

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