Maine residents protest reinstatement of fire chief

Bangor Daily News

MATTAWAMKEAG, Maine — Town government and possibly the Fire Department may shut down for at least a day in response to a town meeting during which residents voted to cut the budget in protest of the reinstatement of a suspended fire chief, officials said Wednesday.

Town office workers and firefighters told Board of Selectmen Chairman John Whitehouse after Monday’s town meeting that they intended to resign. Several resignation letters are expected Thursday, according to Whitehouse.

He expects that town government will finish the week and not reopen on Monday. Selectmen will discuss the situation during a regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, he said.

Whitehouse, Town Manager Steve Worster and former selectman George Sargent blamed the town meeting vote on selectmen’s unanimous vote on June 3 to reinstate Fire Chief Robert Powers, his wife, Deputy Fire Chief Lynne Powers, and their daughter, firefighter Kara Lane, to their part-time positions with back pay.

“I think it is unfortunate. If we were able to reveal all the facts, then people would feel a lot differently,” Whitehouse said Wednesday. “A lot of work has gone into getting the town office to operate as efficiently as it does. That will all go by the wayside. A lot of it had to do with getting key people in the right positions.”

The board voted 3-0 on May 6, 2013, to seek the resignation of Powers after he and his family were placed on administrative leave without pay a week before in response to allegations that the Powers family had bought at least $9,000 in gasoline for personal vehicles with a town credit card intended for fire department use.

But Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy declined to sign an arrest warrant in February charging Robert Powers with Class D theft.

He said he doubted the allegations were provable. By signing warrants addressing the purchases, selectmen effectively approved them, Almy said.

Sargent said that the board acted on advice from attorney Robert Hark when it reinstated the three firefighters. Sargent said that Hark advised them that they couldn’t win a civil case against the Powers family and that the best thing selectmen could do was reinstate them and Lane.

Sargent, who finished his term in office when he elected not to run for his position on Monday, also said that selectmen have tightened oversight of town credit card use.

“My feeling is he did a good job,” Sargent said of Powers. “My other feeling is how many lives did he save with the ambulance service and how much training has he had. The only thing was we didn’t have a policy in effect that would reimburse him for his travel. We’ve addressed that.”

Attempts to contact Powers on Wednesday through the Penobscot County Regional Communications Center and at the fire station were unsuccessful.

Whitehouse said that Powers has alerted area fire departments to cover Mattawamkeag emergencies as long as any shutdown lasts. The Fire Department, he said, has enough money from the ambulance service Powers helped establish to run into the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Selectmen await a statement from Hark, Whitehouse said, that would explain their rationale for rehiring Powers.

But that will come after residents voted 49-38 at Monday’s meeting to cut the total salary of town office employees from $74,076 to $40,000. They also voted 51-37 to cut from $56,361 to $40,000 the Fire Department’s equipment, repairs, salaries, maintenance and training budget line, according to a vote tally.

The rest of the 52 articles passed as recommended by the Budget Committee or Board of Selectmen, according to a vote summary sheet Worster provided.

New selectman Terry Thompson was elected to a three-year term and resident Gail Seavey to a one-year seat. Seavey did not immediately return a message seeking comment and Thompson appears to have an unlisted telephone number.

Selectmen are in a situation similar to that created by a Medway town meeting about two months ago. Medway voters made several budget cuts that would have eliminated the school system’s administrative staff in protest of a school board decision to hire a new bookkeeper.

Medway’s attorney advised town leaders that the cuts would violate state law and break town contracts with employees and East Millinocket.

Mattawamkeag’s town workers don’t have those kinds of contracts, Whitehouse said that selectmen will likely see how they can rearrange town government and the fire department in conformance with the cuts Mattawamkeag residents voted to make.

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