NORRIDGEWOCK — An audio recording of a recent sewer commissioners meeting reveals an attack on the town manager that includes a move to hold an illegal executive session about her, complaints about her “attitude” and language that she tells them is demeaning.

In the recording Town Manager Michelle Flewelling made of the commission’s Sept. 8 meeting, Vice Chairman Ron Currier attempts to hold an executive session to discuss a personnel issue, despite the fact the commission doesn’t have the authority to do that. Currier also refers to Flewelling as “sweetheart” when she questions whether the board can hold an executive session about her.

When the motion to hold an illegal executive session was rejected by other commissioners, Currier discusses Flewelling’s performance openly, saying she is responsible for problems on the board of commissioners, which reviews the Sewer Department budget and sets sewer rates. He also accuses her of causing problems on the board because of her history with member Charlotte Curtis, who was ousted from a clerk job in 2012 at the Town Office. Currier and commissioner Bruce Obert both question her “attitude,” with Obert adding that she “might as well stay home.”

The imbroglio comes amid larger problems facing the Norridgewock Wastewater Treatment Facility, which is running short of money to get through the year and could be in violation of state law if there’s not enough money to pay for the replacement of malfunctioning or broken equipment. The wastewater treatment facility, which is more than 20 years old, owes the town more than $62,000 and continues to operate in the red.

The money shortage is mainly a result of a lack of a recent sewer rate increase and lack of collection of payments, according to Flewelling, who is also the supervisor of the treatment facility and has urged commissioners to spend money for a preventive maintenance plan.

On the recording of the Sept. 8 meeting, taken on Flewelling’s personal device, Currier’s and Obert’s remarks spur Flewelling to leave the room, though the recorder continues to document their remarks, which include complaints that the meeting is being recorded. The recording also includes questions about the accuracy of meeting minutes taken at previous sewer commission meetings and whether they should be recorded as well.

Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Ron Frederic on Wednesday asked the four-member board of sewer commissioners to amend its minutes to exclude references to town employees.

MEETING RECORDING

The recording of the Sept. 8 meeting starts out with a review of minutes from past 2015 meetings dating back to April. There is some discussion about the accuracy of the minutes, and at one point Flewelling states that she does not agree with minutes from the Aug. 3 meeting, at which Currier made a motion to silence her for the meeting.

Sewer Commission Chairwoman Kristina Gossman also says she thinks there are inaccuracies in the minutes, though she doesn’t specify what they are. “This sums up the gist of what was said, but there’s a lot more to the conversation that was going on,” she says of the minutes.

In an interview Thursday, Gossman said the problems with the minutes were too many to list, so she asked for a note to be made in the final version of the minutes that the town manager had made audio recordings of the August meetings.

Gossman also makes a motion to start making audio recordings of the sewer commission meetings, but the motion is not seconded.

“I think it’s just that if there’s ever a question or if anything needs to be looked at again, having audio is a good idea,” she says on the recording. “That way it’s never an issue of transparency. There’s never a question of what happened. It’s all on the record.”

“Written minutes aren’t meant to be word for word anyway,” says Charlotte Curtis, the commissioners’ secretary, on the recording. But she adds, “I’m not opposed to having a recording.”

“I’m not opposed, but I don’t think it’s necessary,” Currier says. “I’m not opposed, but I’m not in favor of it either. I don’t see the necessity. We’ve never had one.”

After the motion, Currier goes on to talk about the Sewer Department, its current debt of $62,000 to the town and a potential maintenance plan for the future of the plant.

Flewelling recommends that the board look into hiring someone to come up with a maintenance plan.

Currier disagrees with that proposal, saying that it would cost too much money and suggesting that Flewelling and the sewer operator, Heinz Gossman – the chairwoman’s brother – should be the ones to come up with the maintenance plan.

“You indicated I have my mind made up, but that sounds more like an attitude problem than a fact,” he says to Flewelling. “I don’t have my mind made up about anything.”

He then says that on the way to the meeting he was contemplating calling an executive session for a personnel matter and makes a motion to go into one.

Flewelling says he does not have the right to call an executive session, to which Currier replies, “Well, you can sue us after. You’ve been through that before, sweetheart.”

In an interview Thursday, Currier said he was referring to a lawsuit the town brought against him years ago about a piece of property of his that the town wanted to use to expand a road. Flewelling was not town manager at the time, and Currier said he was not referring to her in the comment, but to her job as town manager.

When Flewelling says she doesn’t know what he’s talking about and reminds Currier that he cannot talk about personnel, Currier says, “See, that’s an attitude, and you shouldn’t have that. You should be professional.”

OFFENSE AT ‘SWEETHEART’

In an interview Thursday, Flewelling said that she has had a good working relationship with Currier and it was not until June, when the commissioners took a tour of the sewer plant, that problems arose. On the tour, she said, he called her “lady,” which she found disrespectful, although she didn’t say anything at the time and assumed he may have just been having a bad day. In an interview Thursday, Currier said he first called Flewelling “lady” because he forgot her name.

Kristina Gossman, also in an interview Thursday, said the Sept. 8 meeting was the second time she had heard Currier use words such as “sweetheart” or “little lady” in addressing Flewelling. She said she has never heard him use those words with any other women, including herself and Curtis, the two women on the sewer commission.

“I felt horrible that I didn’t stop it the first time, which is why I spoke up,” she said.

On the recording, when she points out that the use of words such as “sweetheart” and “lady” can be considered offensive, Currier says, “Well, it shouldn’t be.”

Currier, who is 73, added in an interview: “When I got home, I looked ‘lady’ up in the dictionary, and my heavens. It’s like, I’m a little older than they are, but in my mind, a lady is someone who’s a little more refined. My dictionaries go back to 1962, but the definition in there is a woman who is above in social status.

“I didn’t mean it derogatorily, but to a younger generation maybe it is, or they think it’s something old-fashioned.”

Currier apologizes in the recording, but then goes on to say, “So let’s discuss what I have to discuss in the open. This was a very pleasant board to sit on before this year. Things went along good, and then Charlotte (Curtis) came on the board. I have nothing against Charlotte, but she’s had some problems with the town and the town manager.”

He says he thinks the town manager brought an attitude to the board meetings after Curtis joined the board. Curtis was on the board in 2014, but the commissioners didn’t meet that year.

“(Curtis) sits nice and quiet and lets me have the say,” Currier says in the recording.

Curtis previously worked as an office clerk in the Town Office, but she lost her job in 2012 after she was caught making secret audio recordings of conversations at the Town Office’s front desk. Curtis initially was fired but later she agreed to resign as part of a grievance process with the town. Flewelling said she has no hard feelings toward Curtis.

“I don’t know why he would think that,” Flewelling said in an interview, referring to Currier. The town manager also meets with Curtis regularly for meetings of the Board of Selectmen, on which Curtis also serves. “It certainly has nothing to do with Charlotte being on the board. I do have a problem, however, with being called a liar and ‘honey’ and ‘sweetheart’ and ‘lady’ and being told everything I say is not true. I can certainly make sure that you all can keep working, and Heinz (the plant operator) and I don’t need to attend anymore.”

In the recording, Obert says to Flewelling, “With the attitude that’s being had now, I don’t think it makes sense. You might as well stay home or go wherever you want to go.”

Soon after that, Flewelling leaves the room — there’s silence followed by footsteps on the recording — and the commissioners’ discussion turns to her recorder left behind.

“Well if that’s the case, have her take her tape recorder,” says Obert, who did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

“That’s her personal tape recorder and we don’t have copies of it. I think that should be abolished,” Currier says. “If she’s going to tape it, she should make copies for everybody.”

Flewelling said Thursday that she began recording sewer meetings after the June meeting, when there were disputes about whether a rate increase would be necessary. She also records selectmen’s meetings and said she has made copies of the recordings before and shared them with the public.

Obert says, “If it keeps running, I’m going to get up and leave. I don’t think it needs to be running.”

Currier adds, “I object to someone having a personal (audio recorder) that isn’t available as an official one for the board. There is a difference,” he says. “If I tape this meeting and I wouldn’t give anyone else a copy, it’s just for me, what would you think? You’d think I’m trying to hang somebody. As soon as you say something off-color, I could use it against you, but nobody else would have the tape recordings.”

FOR THE RECORD

The sewer commissioners are scheduled to meet next on Oct. 14, and Gossman said they will discuss changes to past minutes, as suggested by Frederic, chairman of the selectmen.

“I’m not sure whether we’re going to go through them all,” Gossman said. “There will have to be a vote on whether to amend them.”

Maine’s Freedom of Access laws have minimal requirements for what must be included in meeting minutes and do not specify a policy for amending minutes or drafts of minutes.

Any recording taken by a public official at a meeting is considered public record, even if the official in question is not a member of the board meeting, according to Sigmund Schutz, an attorney with the Portland law firm PretiFlaherty who represents the Morning Sentinel.

Flewelling shared the recording of the Sept. 8 meeting with the Morning Sentinel after a request from the newspaper Tuesday, but not until after she discussed it with the Board of Selectmen. That’s allowed under the state’s Freedom of Access law’s stipulation that officials have five days to respond to requests for records. She provided a copy of the recording to the newspaper on Thursday.

Frederic said Thursday that he could not comment on what prompted him to ask the commissioners to amend their minutes and whether the recording played a part in it.

“Any town personnel discussions need to come before this board,” he told sewer commissioners at Wednesday’s selectmen’s meeting. “You may or may not know what kind of situation you put the board in by doing that, but it’s not good.”

Frederic also asked the commissioners to amend their meeting minutes to remove references to town employees. He said Thursday that he was not asking the board to “alter their minutes,” but to “take out any names that are used in a derogatory or performance-based way.”

Drafts of meeting minutes are public information, although there are no requirements that municipalities keep drafts as public record, Schutz said. An exception would be if a town was aware of a pending legal matter related to what is in the draft.

“It would be, I think, irregular, to go back and try and edit old minutes going back months, or even years, to scrub out references to personnel matters,” Schutz said. “If the minutes have been passed and seconded and are part of the official record of the sewer board, I don’t know if it’s kosher to go back and revise all of them and then destroy the earlier versions.”

Schutz said he did not see anything wrong with amending drafts of meeting minutes and removing the names of personnel who were not supposed to be mentioned.

Flewelling said it is something the town has done before. “We have had to adjust the minutes to strike information regarding personnel,” she said. “You can always go back and amend a set of minutes.”

“It was never supposed to be talked about to begin with,” she added. “My understanding is because it’s something that never should have happened to begin with, you have the right to remove it,” saying it’s possible to generalize the discussion and capture what happened without making it into a personnel issue.

Both Gossman and Currier said that before Sept. 8 they were not aware that as commissioners they cannot hold executive sessions.

The Freedom of Access law states, in reference to personnel issues, that executive sessions can be called only to discuss individuals or officials who are appointed by or work for the agency.

“I don’t think anyone would have willfully called an executive session if we had been aware,” Gossman said. “I have no idea how the next meeting will be, but hopefully we’ve figured things out and we can get on the right track.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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