China selectmen say no to hiring Portland attorney

by Mary Grow

China selectmen spent the most time during their Jan. 4 virtual meeting on two issues, one of which was on the agenda.

That issue was the request from the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Committee to hire a Portland attorney to assist with preparation of China’s proposed revised TIF document (see related story, linked here).

Board Chairman Ronald Breton made a motion not to hire the Portland attorney. He said town attorney Amanda Meader also has experience with TIF documents, her hourly rate is lower and she is familiar with China.

Board members Blane Casey and Janet Preston thought the attorney could be paid from TIF funds. Breton said no; the money would come from the town’s already-overspent legal account.

Town Manager Becky Hapgood confirmed the $20,000 voters approved in March 2020 for legal expenses is gone, and $1,522 more. The legal reserve fund, saved from inexpensive years to cover expensive ones, has about $9,000 in it, she said.

Selectmen voted unanimously not to contract with the Portland attorney. Breton then made a motion to ask Meader if she would work on the TIF document. At Casey’s suggestion, he added the provision that she would be paid no more than is in the legal reserve fund. But, he said, the selectmen’s contingency fund, approved in March 2020 at $55,000, could provide back-up money if needed.

Meanwhile, TIF Committee member Jamie Pitney was waving his hand and shaking his head vigorously. Breton, who was participating by telephone due to computer problems, could not see him. After the third time Hapgood said, “Jamie wants to speak,” Breton polled the board and, when no one objected, allowed Pitney to speak outside the public comment period.

Pitney said if voters approve the planned amendments to the TIF document at the annual town meeting, there will be a TIF legal fund.

Before the unanimous vote to contact Meader, TIF Committee Chairman Tom Michaud was also allowed to speak. He told selectmen committee members will write the revised document; the attorney will need only to review it.

The second well-discussed issue was conflict of interest, raised by Breton in response to an email from Scott Pierz. Pierz, president of the China Lake Association, explained during the public comment period that he believes Michaud, Pitney and Daniel Boivin, members of the association board of directors and of the TIF Committee, should abstain on TIF Committee votes on funding the lake association.

The three men represent the China public on the TIF Committee to which selectmen have appointed them, but they also have responsibilities to the private organization, in Pierz’s view. He does not object to their contributing to discussion, only to their voting.

Breton went further. He said people with a conflict of interest should not participate in discussion related to their other responsibility, and that members of a committee’s subcommittee should not vote on the subcommittee’s recommendations in the full committee. Doing so gives them a double vote, he said.

Pitney offered a more restrictive view, saying conflict of interest arises when an individual has a direct financial interest in a board decision. When people have overlapping positions, for example as a TIF Committee member and a lake association director, they should say so, he added.

No action was taken. The desirability of written policies was suggested.

In other business Jan. 4:

  • Overriding their Dec. 21 informal decision to accept Selectman Irene Belanger’s offer to represent the selectboard on the Broadband Committee (the committee unanimously requested a selectboard member as liaison), board members voted 4-0 to appoint Selectman Janet Preston as a non-voting committee member. Hapgood pointed out that Belanger has other committee responsibilities, and said Preston, who abstained on the vote, had expressed interest.
  • By a 4-1 vote with Wayne Chadwick opposed, board members re-approved the town’s tobacco-free policy. Hapgood said the policy replicates the November 2015 Tobacco Free/Tobacco Litter Free Ordinance, which essentially says nobody can smoke anything anywhere on town property. Chadwick, remembering his former life as a smoker, said it is unfair to make employees work for eight hours or more without a cigarette break.
  • In preparation for 2021-22 budget discussions, selectmen briefly considered new projects they might propose, like Preston’s suggestions of a farmers’ market or a community garden.

Hapgood relayed reports from town departments. Highlights included:

  • Beginning in February, the town office will return to its pre-pandemic Saturday schedule, open every Saturday from 8 to 11 a,m. It will also be open the last Saturday in January, Jan. 30. Residents are still encouraged to do as much business on line as possible.
  • Town Clerk Angela Nelson reported China has 3,185 registered voters as of the beginning of 2021. The quorum requirement for an open town meeting is therefore 128.
  • Assistant assessing agent Kelly Grotton plans to send letters to new homeowners in town reminding them of the state homestead exemption that reduces some people’s property taxes. Other year-round homeowners who do not receive the exemption can inquire about their eligibility.
  • Regional School Unit (RSU) #18 directors have scheduled the 2021 meeting to vote on the 2021-22 school budget for Thursday evening, March 20, in Oakland. The written-ballot budget validation referendum will be Tuesday, June 8.

Breton urged board members to attend the March 20 meeting. He pointed out that selectmen do not get information from China’s RSU board members, Dawn Castner and Neil Farrington. Preston suggested inviting them to a selectmen’s meeting, and Belanger said she attends RSU board meetings regularly.

Budget consideration is slated to begin at a special meeting with the budget committee at 6:30 p.m., Monday, Jan. 11. The budget discussion will be followed by Hapgood’s annual performance review, in executive session.

The next regular selectmen’s meeting will be Tuesday, Jan. 19, because the town office will be closed Monday, Jan. 18, for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.


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