BAR HARBOR — Calling it an attempt at blackmail, town councilors rejected a settlement offer Tuesday in a lawsuit brought last year by shorefront property owners over zoning changes at the former ferry terminal property. They also instructed the town manager to look into possible ethics violations by Warrant Committee members.
“This lawsuit seeks to overturn the decision of town meeting, and to disenfranchise the votes of the citizens of Bar Harbor,” Councilor Gary Friedmann said when the council convened in open session following an executive session with town attorney Ed Bearor. “The settlement offer … amounts to an attempt to blackmail the council into removing these decisions about the town’s future from the citizens of Bar Harbor through town meeting. Therefore we reject the settlement offer and direct our legal counsel to request summary judgment.”
Friedmann spoke further about the topic at the end of the meeting about allegations that the council has an agenda for the ferry terminal property.
“There’s a sense in the town, I don’t really know where it comes from, that the council has some agenda or that we’re going to pull a fast one on the citizens and slip in a cruise ship [pier] when they’re not looking,” he said. “That can’t happen because we’re a town meeting style of government.
“We don’t get to decide on things like a port authority,” he continued. “That is done by a vote at town meeting. We’d just like to have the options and present the options to town meeting and let the citizens vote on it. When citizens come with a lawsuit that suggests the town meeting isn’t making the right decisions, I find that offensive.”
Friedmann said there could be up to $9.9 million in bonds on the June town meeting warrant, and development costs for the terminal could be another $15 million.
“A port authority could issue revenue bonds and not obligate the taxpayers of the town to pay for the debt service for the development and acquisition of the property,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think the council will recommend a port authority, but I think we wanted that option.”
Attorney for the plaintiffs, William Dale, sent the settlement proposal to Bearor on Dec. 13. In it, the plaintiffs, James Blanchard, William B. Ruger Jr., Jonathan Eno and Karen Gilfillan, offered to dismiss the current civil action “if the Town Council would, in turn, vote at an upcoming meeting that it has expressly abandoned plans for construction of a large mega-cruise ship pier, by either the town or any third party, and withdraw its support for LD-1400 [the proposed Bar Harbor Port Authority bill].”
The complaint charges that a Shoreland Maritime Activities District, added to the town’s land use ordinance following voter approval in June, would hurt the plaintiffs’ property value.
Town to probe Warrant Committee
After taking action on the settlement offer, councilors also moved to instruct Town Manager Cornell Knight to gather additional documents that could show ethics violations by members of the Warrant Committee.
Council Matthew Hochman said documents the town has received during discovery for the aforementioned lawsuit, including emails between Warrant Committee members, prompted their concern.
“The council has grave concerns that certain citizens serving on the Warrant Committee have actively worked behind the scenes to influence the decisions taken by the committee, and we will be looking into this matter further,” Hochman said. “I, therefore, move that the town manager gather additional documents that likely exist in connection to this matter.”
“The Warrant Committee are elected officials, and when they’re doing things behind the scenes, that’s not very transparent,” he said.
The Islander is aware of these documents and is working to obtain them.