2016-07-15 / Community

Officials: No conspiracy in appointments

Still, an overhaul of the committee process may be needed, most admit
By. Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — A kerfuffle over committee appointments has one resident crying conspiracy, a charge town officials flatly deny.

Rachel Phipps served on the Board of Selectmen from 1997 until 2001, when she resigned to take a position as the town’s youth services director. She was laid off from that job in 2009, at the same time the town’s social services coordinator was let go. Today, she works as a social worker for the Opportunity Alliance, but remains interested in the town and tried to get on the local Economic Development Committee in 2012 and again in June.

With a degree in development studies from Brown University, in addition to her past municipal experience, her qualifications to sit on the EDC are, she says, “impeccable.”

But when she applied to the committee in 2012, Phipps was told the committee has established a moratorium on new members as it worked on a restructuring plan it intended to present to selectmen – to reduce the group’s membership from 13 to nine members, and to establish residency requirements to ensure representation from all parts of town. Satisfied that hers would be the next application in line, and that she’d be notified when a vacancy occurred, Phipps says she went on with life and did not dwell on her on-deck status until municipal elections this past June.

The election of EDC chairman Blake Baldwin to the board of selectmen would surely create a vacancy, she thought, and so Phipps checked to make sure she was still next in line for an appointment, even filling in a new form the town had created for applicants since 2012.

But then, surprisingly enough, Phipps saw the agenda for the June 28 selectmen’s meeting, and its recommendation that she not be appointed. The reason? The same as in 2012 – a moratorium on new members pending restructuring of the committee.

“The only time this ‘right-sizing’ thing has come up is when there’s been a vacancy and I was the next person to get on the board,” Phipps said on Monday. “I think the Economic Development Committee isn’t a committee, it’s a club, and they don’t want me in their club.”

Fueling the conspiracy fires – just days after Phipps updated her application, the EDC held a special meeting. The next day, on June 23, committee co-chair Bob Georgitis emailed selectmen, asking for a delay in any new appointments.

“Given the changeover in committee [membership] and the vacancies we now have, we would like to take time to fashion a proposal for your review and approval,” Georgitis wrote.

“They’ve never before had a special meeting before. Not one,” Phipps said. “But on June 22, a few days after I checked in on the status of my application to the committee, they hold a special meeting with what’s clearly s slapdash agenda somebody just clearly threw together, and the next day there’s an email recommending against my appointment. So, they clearly had a special meeting purely to keep me from getting on this committee.”

However, both Baldwin and Tibbetts say Phipps’ name never came up at the special meeting, which was called to debate an idea Tibbett has for a November bond referendum on improving the Route 1 corridor between downtown Kennebunk and the Arundel town line.

“We decided that was hasty and not something we wanted to do based on new information that made the work seem more expensive that we had talked about in the past,” Baldwin said. “We did not talk about Rachel at all.”

But if that’s true, Phipps says that raises the question of when the committee voted to request a delay in new appointments. Georgitis’ June 23 email attributes the request to “the EDC,” and not to something he decided on his own.

“If the committee did not discuss at that meeting, then when did it vote on it? It can only have happened outside of an open meeting,” Phipps said.

The minutes from the June 23 EDC meeting have yet to be sent to Town Clerk Merton Brown. Oddly enough, the town is also missing EDC minutes from July 12, 2012 – the last time the group reportedly discussed restructuring itself.

Brown said he’s put in a request to try and find out why he never got those minutes. Meanwhile, Baldwin freely admits the EDC did not take up the restructuring issue between at any point during the past four years.

“That’s my bad,” he said. “We were working on the TIF program and trying to educate ourselves on all the issues surrounding that. So, the restructuring was something that just never rose to the level beyond something we had talked about doing. It never actually got executed.”

It wasn’t until his forced resignation to take a seat on the board of selectmen that the issue came up again, which, Blake says, is coincidental to Phipps’ renewed interest in serving.

Still, there seems to be some confusion about how much of the restructuring actually occurred. Technically, none ever did, Tibbetts acknowledged Monday.

On July 17, the EDC reported to selectmen that they wanted to hold off on new appointments “until three new members were acclimated,” and that it would “revisit the membership in six to nine months.”

That revisit never happened and no officials changes to the committee makeup were ever voted on. Since then, four members have resigned from the committee. Mark Brunelle and Charlie Galloway reportedly resigned during the latter half of 2012, the same timeframe in which Heather Harris was elevated from an alternate member position. Then Chris MacClinchy went in January 2014.

Baldwin says replacements for those members were never requested from selectmen because it had always been his assumption that the plan had been to reduce membership through attrition.

“I believed we were supposed to have nine members, not 13,” he said, explaining that this is why he stood at the June 28 selectmen’s meeting and said the EDC has “had no vacancies” since 2012 to offer to Phipps.

It’s also why selectmen never made an appointment to the EDC, even though the town charter says selectmen shall fill all vacancies “within 60 days” of an official determination that an opening exists.

There’s also a question of Virginia Griffith’s EDC membership. She moved to Kennebunkport and, although Brown says there is no requirement that an EDC member actually live in Kennebunk, she has not attended a meeting in at least six months. That, Phipps says, should have triggered a town policy stating that committee members attend at least 75 percent of meetings or else risk losing there seats.

However, Baldwin says he only found out from Griffith “a few weeks ago,” that she intended to resign her seat.

And that also leads to some confusion. Brown says he tracks attendance, but leaves it to Tibbetts’ assistant, Kathy Nolette, to pass on any demerits based on that data to selectmen. Nolette meanwhile says she only does that when it comes time for a person to be reappointed. Otherwise, it’s up to committee chairs to notify selectmen of possible vacancies, while Blake says he expected someone else to actually do that.

Phipps meanwhile, isn’t buying it.

“I’ve been shocked by the level of deception that’s been just astounding to me,” she said.

Instead, Phipps attributes the lack of love she’s apparently been getting over her EDC application to the fact that she has been openly critical of how the town handles its TIF funds, as well as the hiring of economic development director Mat Eddy in 2012. There’s also lingering resentment over her layoff, when she says came after she rose to the defense of the town’s social service director, although she calls that “water under the bridge.”

There’s also the perception, she believes, that she and her husband, budget board member John Costin, are anti-business progressives.

“I think there’s an idea out there that John and I are somehow against development,” she said.

However, both Baldwin and Tibbetts chalk up the entire snafu to misunderstandings and failures of oversight.

“All I know is there was no intention to do anything other than to conduct the business of the EDC in a reasonable, fair and open way,” Baldwin said. “We are not trying to discriminate against Rachel Phipps.”

“Obviously, there’s been some confusion,” Tibbetts said. “The charter is the charter and, so, yes, I think when vacancies occurred, in retrospect there should have been a vote of the selectmen, at least to say formally that they were declining to make an appointment at that time.”

Phipps fought at the June 28 meeting to get a vote on here EDC application, which selectmen did approve 4-1. Richard Morin, the lone apparent vote against Phipps, says his no vote was not against her, but rather against the committee.

“I felt like, and I told Rachel this, that we ought to wait until we can figure out what is going on with that committee,” he said, bristling somewhat when told Phipps later attributed his vote to “being buddies with all these people.”

As it turns out, selectmen were scheduled to begin discussion at their July 12 workshop on how to refine the working process of all town committees. That session took place after the deadline for this week’s Post. Still, Phipps said she welcomes the review.

“I think what’s happened to me is a really good illustration of how political the process can get,” she said. “I think what’s really important in governance in a democracy is transparency and following polices and protocols that make it fair for everybody.”

On that point, at least, she and Baldwin agree.

“I always thought I was doing the right things as a committee chairman and assumed that if I was not, somebody would have grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and put me on the right path,” he said. “There’s no doubt what’s happened over the last few weeks has been stressful to a lot of people, but if we do a better job of managing the committee process as I result, I think that’s a good outcome, and nobody can argue with that.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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