BAR HARBOR — Town councilors, worried about possible violations of town ordinances and state open meeting laws, have asked four Warrant Committee members to turn over correspondence relating to 2017 zoning proposals for the former international ferry terminal. One committee member said he does not know if he will comply with the town’s request, calling it vague and problematic.
The action follows a motion unanimously approved by town councilors on Feb. 6. Councilor Matt Hochman said documents the town received during discovery in a pending lawsuit against the town, including emails between Warrant Committee members, prompted the decision to request additional documents.
On Feb. 7, Town Manager Cornell Knight copied the council’s motion in an email to Jake Jagel, John Kelly, Donna Karlson and Seth Libby, all current members of the Warrant Committee’s General Government subcommittee. They were asked to provide copies of all documents pertaining to articles 12 and 13, including emails, social media or text messages between February 2017 and June 2017.
Jonathan Eno was the fifth member of the subcommittee last year but has since resigned. Kathy St. Germain will fill Eno’s vacancy, moving from the Health, Welfare, Recreation & Cooperating Agencies subcommittee.
The General Government subcommittee discusses and issues a recommendation to the rest of the 22-person committee on zoning articles, such as article 12, and other warrant articles. This recommendation informs the full committee’s recommendation that is printed on the ballot.
Knight said that he wanted the documents by Feb. 21 “to assure that ordinances and open meeting laws are being followed” and that this correspondence is public information, because Warrant Committee members are elected officials.
Two or more members of a committee meeting privately to discuss official business of the committee, even over email, could breach Right to Know meeting laws. Members of town boards and committees are expected to receive training on Right to Know rules and the town’s ethics ordinance.
The Town Council oversees all town committees, Knight told the Islander this week, and may request the information without filing a Freedom of Access Act request.
The emails received by the town in the lawsuit span from Oct. 2016 to Dec. 2017. They include correspondence between members of the Warrant Committee, the ferry terminal property advisory committee, Friends of Frenchman Bay, the Bar Harbor Residents Association and the petitioners’ committee that worked to put article 13 on the ballot.
Discussion focuses on the use of the ferry terminal property, fundraising to support passage of citizen initiative article 13 and resistance to the port authority bill in the legislature.
Karlson was contacted by Knight through an email address she shares with her husband, Art Greif. Greif identifies himself as the writer in some of the messages sent from that address.
Kelly called the email from Knight “ominous.” He said the request implicates people without explaining the ordinances or laws that could have been breached.
Kelly said that he does not know if he will comply with Knight’s request and may seek legal counsel on the matter because he doesn’t know if he is being charged with a violation.
“I do feel like I need to get some legal council, and the town needs to provide legal counsel because I’m a town official,” Kelly said. “I don’t feel it’s really safe to respond in any way.”
Kelly points to a 2014 memo from town attorneys that said that because the Warrant Committee only issues recommendations, they are not bound by the same conflict of interest rules as other boards and committees.
“My overall sense is that there is distrust [in the] Town Council and the Warrant Committee,” Kelly said. “It is stuff like this that creates the friction that nobody really hears about.”
Kelly said he has a problem with the request for “all documents,” because it could be perceived as broad. He added that he has many documents in his home, including articles published in the Islander about article 13.
“I may have received, and I haven’t, anything about [article 13] and if I have, so what?” Kelly said. “If I received Nazi propaganda in my junk mail, does that implicate me to being part of the Nazi movement?”
Ethics violation complaints may be filed only by individuals, and none have been filed to date on this issue. Once a complaint is received, the town’s Ethics Commission, made up of officers from the Town Council, School Committee and Warrant Committee, meets to consider it.
If the Ethics Commission were to meet today, it would be comprised of council Chair Paul Paradis, council Vice-Chair Gary Friedmann, School Committee Chair Kristi Losquadro, School Committee Vice-Chair Robin Sue Tapley, Warrant Committee Chair John Dargis and Warrant Committee Secretary Seth Libby. The Warrant Committee vice-chair also would be a member of the commission, but that seat is currently vacant.
Michael Blythe, who served on the Health, Welfare, Recreation & Cooperating Agencies subcommittee and as vice chair, resigned on Jan. 30 due to health reasons, Dargis said.
A nominating committee comprised of Dargis, Libby and the chair of the affected subcommittee, Emily Henry, will meet to nominate a new member to take Blythe’s place.
The Warrant Committee is usually elected by a 22-person slate that is nominated by a committee and confirmed or denied by voters at town meeting in June. Mid-term appointments have a different nominating committee and are confirmed on the floor at the next full committee meeting.
The committee was left with two mid-term vacancies earlier this year with Erin Cough (nee Early Ward), being elected to both the Warrant Committee and Town Council, and Eno resigning.
In that instance, the nominating committee, then comprised of Blythe, Dargis, Libby, Henry and Jake Jagel, the chair of the General Government subcommittee, met and nominated Christine Harding and Joe Minutolo.
St. Germain filled the vacancy in the General Government subcommittee, leaving two vacancies in the Health, Welfare, Recreation & Cooperating Agencies subcommittee. Harding and Minutolo will serve on the Health, Welfare, Recreation & Cooperating Agencies subcommittee.
The Warrant Committee met for its first budget review on Feb. 12. It will meet every Monday, except for Feb. 19, until March 27, when it meets with town councilors.