The $77,000 patch job (Feb. 20, 2011)

Jobs under the bid requirement later expand

By Mechele Cooper
Staff Writer

CHELSEA — Leonetta Burns remembers the “destruction” of Dondero Road like it was yesterday.

Crews from Marshall Swan Construction at work on Dondero Road in Chelsea in 2006. (Kennebec Journal file photo)

It was July 12, 2006, when she arrived home from work to discover Marshall Swan, a town contractor, had cut down a horse chestnut tree she had planted 35 years earlier as a sapling.

Burns said she was “horrified.”

Swan wasn’t finished. He dug up her lawn, destroyed a drainage ditch her husband had constructed, plowed dirt and rotted logs onto her stone wall and uprooted small trees, Burns said.

The “nightmare continued” every time he returned, she said: clear-cutting trees along the westerly side of the road, uprooting trees along her stone wall, “scalping” the top of her stone wall and even hauling away some of the stones.

Shocked, Burns called the town manager, who said Swan did not have permission to cut down trees or disturb stone walls.

Still, the work continued.

On Aug. 15, 2006, Burns said Swan ran into ledge attempting to replace a culvert. He told Burns he needed to call in a blasting company. Irregular explosions soon followed.

All for a job one town official said was meant to be “a quick patchup of a muddy area.”

The Dondero Road project — which morphed from patch job to a $77,000 overhaul — illustrates a municipal road contracting system that’s put Chelsea at the center of at least one police investigation and Swan’s wife — the town’s top elected official — facing criminal charges.

Carole Swan, chairman of the Chelsea Board of Selectmen, was arrested last week and charged with aggravated forgery, theft and improper compensation stemming from a probe of Chelsea’s municipal contracting.

A quiet marred

Dondero Road is a quiet road less than a mile long. Five families live on the paved section off Hallowell Road; five families live at the far end, which is dirt.

Burns said her great-great-grandfather bought the plot where she now lives in May 1890, but her family has lived on the road since 1853.

The land — with its trees, ledges and stone walls — is sacred to Burns. It’s part of her heritage.

But all that changed after the work started.

Burns said her property was violated, damaged and destroyed without any discussion or forewarning. She doesn’t hesitate blaming “lies and deceit by town officials” for the damage to her property.

Burns said Marshall Swan told her the road overhaul was necessary “because fire equipment and rescue vehicles needed to get through,” Burns said, “and that he needed to build up the road because he didn’t want to be called back to do this road again. He just exaggerated everything that needed to be done.”

Trudy Ellis, who also lives on the road, agreed.

“I think he overdid it,” Ellis said. “He did more than what was necessary.”

In all, Swan worked on the Dondero Road “patch job” from July through November 2006. He did not return several calls this week from the Kennebec Journal seeking comment on the project.

Contract gone awry

Rick Danforth, a selectman at the time the Dondero Road job was awarded to Swan, said the job was supposed to be a quick patchup of a muddy section.

He said Swan was supposed to scrape the road in the affected area, lay down fabric then cover it with new gravel — a technique Danforth said the town had had used effectively in the past to bolster roads because it stopped mud from seeping through the gravel.

Bob Drisko — who had served as town manager from 1998 to 2005 and as interim town manager in 2008 — said that, in 2003, Chelsea had already done extensive work on Dondero Road, to prepare it for a housing development.

In 2003, “We paved the front section of the road and ditched it so we didn’t have to go in there every year and haul a lot of gravel, which was expensive,” Drisko said. “It was in pretty good shape.”

Danforth said he learned the extent of what had been done on Dondero Road only when he approached Mary Sabins, town manager at the time, about work needed elswehere, on Hallowell Road — one of the town’s major east-west thoroughfares.

“I wanted to see what we had in the road account and discovered there wasn’t much left,” Danforth said. “When we looked into the bills for the Dondero Road — that’s when we discovered, by the first week of August, it totaled up to over $30,000.”

Danforth said selectmen never intended to spend that much money on the project.

Then the invoices started rolling in.

Under the limit

According to town documents reviewed by the Kennebec Journal, the town paid Marshall Swan eight separate times for the Dondero Road work.

Six of the payments were for amounts a few dollars less than $10,000. Chelsea’s contracting rules say officials must seek bids for any contract exceeding $10,000 unless it is an emergency.

The total amount paid to Marshall Swan Construction for the 2006 Dondero Road reconstruction was $77,198. The patch job expected by officials would have cost considerably less, Danforth said.

Selectmen may — and, frequently, did — award contracts in the absence of a town manager. But the town’s ethics policy prohibits selectmen from awarding contracts to members of their immediate families or steering work to businesses “which they or their immediate family own or manage.”

But how did the construction firm owned by the husband of the Board of Selectmen chairman garner $77,198 for a patch job?

Danforth said a parade of town managers, who also served as road commissioners, did not have the expertise to supervise road construction or award road work, so they deferred to Carole Swan.

The town went through a string of town managers from 2005, when Robert Drisko retired, to the present. Selectmen let two town managers go between 2005 and 2009 and did not renew the contract for Sabins in June 2007.

“If (town managers) didn’t challenge her on anything, I would get good reports from Carole (Swan),” Danforth said. “If they said, ‘No, we can’t do it that way,’ all of a sudden Carole was complaining the town manager wasn’t doing her job.”

On the Dondero Road project, “The assumption was that Mary (Sabins) was doing everything under the direction of Carole (Swan),” Danforth said.

“That whole (Dondero Road project) thing, put together, clearly would have had to go out to bid,” he said.

Collateral damage

Sabins said in an interview she and Swan would often canvass town roads to identify projects for capital improvements — but that Swan was the one who worked with contractors and divvied up the work.

“There are times I recall reminding her that, ‘You aren’t fooling anyone by saying these invoices are under $10,000’,” Sabins said this week, referring to town rules limiting no-bid contracts to less than $10,000.

Drisko said he managed the town’s road budget conservatively, trying to keep the town’s summer road construction budget around $200,000 during his tenure. But since he left, that budget has doubled, he said.

“There’s really no way the town actually needs that much work in terms of safety and everything else,” Drisko said. “The town shouldn’t do more than one major project a year. And if you have a five-year plan, then you can lay these things out and get the best contracts and prices and know ahead of time what you’re doing.”

Meanwhile, Burns said the deep, wide ditches Swan dug for drainage in 2006 are slowly disappearing.

“The town dug these ditches, and then they hire a grader to come through every year, sometimes twice a year, and push the gravel into the ditches,” Burns said. “Then the town pays somebody, Marshall, to haul in more gravel to put on top of the road. So we have a nice little mound in the middle. Then, every time they grade, the ditches are filled in again.

“I’m sure he got a lot of money here,” she said. “He just kept working, day after day, hauling in gravel, installing culverts and hauling out rocks …. on and on and on. I thought they never would get done.”

Mechele Cooper — 623-3811, ext. 408

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On Twitter: A no-bid, $77,000 “patch job” benefitted family of disgraced Chelsea selectman | The Kennebec Journal, Augusta, ME…

— Bob Mentzinger (@writingMaine) February 20, 2011


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