A funny thing happened at the Belgrade transfer station Saturday. Anyone who went there after noon couldn’t get in. Usually open until 3 p.m., it was closed.

On a Saturday in August, that’s a lot of people not getting in. Residents, summer people who have to clean out the weekly rental before hitting the interstate. A lot of people driving through the woods down Dunn Road to Transfer Station Road, encountering a closed metal gate and a nervous kid with a walkie-talkie.

I got there about 2:45 and was turned away like everyone else.

When I asked the transfer station employee at the gate why it was closed, he said a truck had backed into the hopper.

OK. The thing is, when you work for a newspaper and someone tells you something like that, you just don’t shrug, say, “Good enough,” get back in the car that reeks of undumped garbage and go home.

I told him I was with the press, identified myself and who I worked for. I told him I had to get in to find out what happened, and I’d walk in if it was a problem for me to drive in.

He’s a good employee. Loyal and obedient. He did not want to let me in. But I’ve been doing this a long time and I convinced him to call a supervisor. Which he did, on his walkie-talkie. Whoever he talked to said to let me in. When I asked who I should see, he told me to talk to Ken.

I got the notebook and pen I always carry in the car and started walking.

While this was happening — and this is an important part of the story — a would-be garbage dumper who pulled up behind me also wanted to get in. I’m not sure what he wanted, but I do know he wasn’t a town employee, but someone who wanted to drop something off. He was also let in, with little fanfare, passing me as I walked up the short road to the hopper.

There were at least half a dozen guys standing around gabbing and speculating, the way guys do when someone has done something like backed a truck into a garbage hopper. They stopped talking as I walked up.

As I said, I’ve been doing this a long time and knew I wasn’t going to have a lot of time. I saw the truck on the bed of a tow truck and took in the make, model, damage, color. Massachusetts plates.

I went up to the group of guys, some of whom I recognized from town functions, and asked for Ken, as the kid at the gate told me to.

They pointed out Ken and I went over.

He was not happy to see me.

“Follow me,” he said, and started leading me back the way I came.

I asked him why I had to leave and he said the transfer station was closed.

I said I was doing a story for the paper and there were other people there, and he said something vague about it not being safe and I couldn’t be there.

I didn’t really see how it was any less safe than it was when I brought my garbage there. And remember the guy in the white van who’d been allowed in? He conducted his business and drove by while I was having this conversation. I guess they weren’t as concerned about him.

I started asking Ken about the accident, what happened, if anyone was hurt.

He told me in no uncertain terms he wasn’t going to tell me anything.

I asked him who the law enforcement person who covered the accident was.

He said he wasn’t going to tell me that either.

I asked him what his last name was.

He said he wasn’t going to tell me that.

He finally relented and said since I’m a Belgrade resident, “I’ll tell you what I’m telling all the Belgrade residents. We’re closed. Someone backed up a pickup into the hopper.”

He said they’d be open Tuesday. We ran a story in Sunday’s paper and a follow-up on Monday.

Another thing Ken said to me as he led me all the way down the road and back to my car and before he scolded that poor kid who let me in: He said he didn’t understand why I thought this was news and why it had to be in the paper.

And it didn’t surprise me he said it. It didn’t surprise me that I got the bum’s rush when I tried to ask questions at the scene.

In fact, it would have surprised me if Ken — Ken Scheno, actually, manager of the transfer station — or anyone else at the scene, had been welcoming or cooperative.

Rachel Ohm, the Morning Sentinel reporter covering the story of the nearly half million dollars missing in Anson, has gotten similar comments from people as that case has unfolded over the last six months.

The story has escalated from $77,000 missing, to $200,000, to $300,000 and now more than $438,000. The town last week filed a lawsuit against longtime town tax collector Claudia Viles, who’s worked 42 years for the town and has said through an attorney she did nothing wrong.

Nearly half a million bucks missing? You’d think people would be mad. The only similar case of such magnitude that comes close, that the attorney general’s office can recall, is that of Chelsea Town Clerk Doris Reed, who was found guilty of stealing $250,000 from the town more than 20 years ago. But town officials don’t seem so much mad as flummoxed by the whole thing.

That lawsuit? It’s actually the Maine Municipal Association’s. The MMA is the insurance carrier for the town, and it paid out $250,000 to cover the missing money. That suit names Claudia Viles as the defendant and lays out very clearly how the one plaintiff named — the town of Anson — believes Viles defrauded the town.

But Arnold Luce, chairman of the selectmen, said the reason for the suit is simply so the MMA can get its money back. Since the story broke publicly in March, no one in town government has said they suspect Viles of taking the money.

Meanwhile, Viles still is collecting residents’ tax money in the Town Office.

When Ohm and Morning Sentinel photographer Mike Seamans went to the Anson Town Office last week to take a picture of Viles and see if they could get her side of the story, or more comment from other town employees, they got the same kind of resistance I got at the Belgrade transfer station.

Viles got up from her desk and went into a back office. Coworkers at the town office gathered her things for her and treated the journalists as though they were interlopers.

When I was at the dump Saturday I told Scheno, in the friendliest possible way, I didn’t see why the accident had to be a big secret. He told me it wasn’t a secret, but he also didn’t see why he had to tell me anything or why it had to be in the newspaper.

Ohm has been told that not only as she covers the Anson story, but also in New Vineyard, where Arlene Davis, the town administrative assistant, resigned after she felt she was forced out by the Board of Selectmen. The Sentinel discovered that the town was in violation of the state’s open records law.

Here’s the thing — whether it’s an accident at the town dump, a town not conducting its business openly and correctly or half a million dollars missing from the town’s treasury — we have a right to be there and ask questions.

Whether you know it or not, you want us to be there.

Sure, the details of that truck accident were probably not going to make a big difference in anyone’s life in Belgrade.

Town employees, not keeping meeting minutes and holding illegal meetings? That affects you more.

Half a million missing from a town over four years? A lot more.

Despite the degrees of impact on town residents’ lives, the principle is the same: Town government isn’t a secret club. Its property isn’t the exclusive domain of those club members. It’s yours.

And it’s our job to ask the questions for you and find out what’s going on.

Good thing we’re also pretty thick-skinned.

Maureen Milliken is the news editor of the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal. Email her at [email protected]. Twitter: mmilliken47. Kennebec Tales appears the first and fourth Thursday of the month. To read previous columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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