WINTHROP — Before the Town Council voted to re-appoint Winthrop’s longtime attorney, Lee Bragg, two council members voiced concern about awarding him that position without considering alternatives.

Both of those councilors, Rita Moran and Priscilla Jenkins, ultimately voted with other councilors Monday night to re-appoint Bragg, but Moran said the town might be able to find more affordable legal counsel by seeking competition for the job.

Then Jenkins provoked some backlash when she described concerns she’s heard about Bragg’s performance, specifically referring to an accusation that he might have overbilled the town for work.

“I’ve heard from some sources that Lee has — they felt he had padded something, from a time perspective,” she said, meaning that he was accused of billing the town for hours of work that he didn’t perform.

On Tuesday, Town Manager Ryan Frost was not able to provide historical spending figures immediately, but he said the town has budgeted $40,000 for legal services in the 2017-2018 fiscal year and so far has spent $25,604 of that amount. The town has faced several unusual legal costs this year related to the construction of a new fire station and the borrowing of money, Frost said.

A call to the town’s finance director, Melody Main, wasn’t returned Tuesday.

Other councilors and Frost were quick to respond Monday night. They defended Bragg’s integrity and argued that it was inappropriate for Jenkins to air her concerns in a public forum. They also said the town’s billing procedures would make it hard for discrepancies to go unnoticed or unchallenged, and that the town has budgeted less for legal costs overall in recent years.

“That’s just ridiculous,” said Linda Caprara, the council’s vice chairwoman, after Jenkins mentioned the overbilling accusation. “He has been an outstanding lawyer for this town for years. I’ve never heard this comment, and to me it’s just unwarranted.”

After hearing from her counterparts, Jenkins expressed regret for her comments, telling the other councilors, “I’m sorry. It was wrong.” She also said, “We can talk another time” about her concerns.

Bragg didn’t respond immediately to a phone call seeking comment or to an emailed list of questions Tuesday.

During an interview Tuesday, Jenkins reiterated both her remarks about Bragg and her regret for having raised them Monday night. She intends to deliver a personal apology to the attorney, who works in the Augusta office of the firm Bernstein Shur, she said.

“I don’t question that we have been generally given solid advice,” she said. “Everyone on the council has always been happy to stay with Lee, but there are people challenging that thinking.” At the same time, she said, her statement on Monday “was less than politic; I was wrong to blurt it out.”

For several years, residents have voiced their concerns about Bragg to Jenkins, including their suspicion that he might report spending “more hours” on town work than he actually does, she said. Jenkins also expressed concern about how accessible Bragg has been to the town, suggesting that other staff members at Bernstein Shur have sometimes responded to the town’s requests for legal help.

In more than three decades of service to Winthrop, Bragg hasn’t been without controversy.

In 2013, a Kennebec Journal investigation found that Winthrop’s then-police chief, Joseph Young Sr., had conducted an off-the-cuff sting operation to help Bragg’s son recover golf clubs that had been stolen in Oxford County. In the parking lot of the Hannaford in Gardiner, Young had drawn his gun on an unarmed man who was suspected of selling the stolen golf clubs, but who turned out to be innocent.

At the time, Bragg told the Kennebec Journal that he wasn’t aware of the sting operation. But Young gave a contradictory account, saying that Bragg had approached him after the golf clubs were stolen, setting the sting in motion. Afterward, Bragg didn’t clarify the discrepancies in their accounts. Young said friendship hadn’t been a factor in his agreeing to help the Bragg family recover the clubs and that he would have carried out the operation “for anybody.”

This week, when Jenkins was asked about that operation, she said that some of the criticism she’s heard about Bragg “was tied to that.”

On Monday night, several councilors rushed to Bragg’s defense when Jenkins made her comments.

“In the context of this meeting, in the public, I don’t think it’s appropriate to question someone’s integrity who’s not here,” said Andy Wess, who was elected recently to the seven-member council. “If we have expenditure issues, then we should bring them to Lee (or someone at his firm) and say, ‘How can we get more for less?’ But I don’t think the solution is to make assumptions about overcharging or things like that. I though I heard the word ‘padding’ used, and I didn’t like it.”

Wess also called Bragg “a good guy” who “knows his business” and said “there’s no sense in starting the learning curve with someone else.”

Sarah Fuller, the council chairwoman, said she agrees with the principle of putting jobs out to bid, but that Bragg’s “institutional knowledge” was valuable to the town. She also said the amount the town has budgeted for legal services has been declining over the years.

Since Frost assumed his job last year, he has received “zero” complaints about Bragg, he said. He noted that the town can and does question the amounts of bills.

“For any vendor we have, we receive the bills to make sure they’re accurate,” Frost said. “There has been nothing inaccurate that we’ve found.”

Frost also said he doesn’t know of any “inappropriate relationships” between Bragg and local officials, and he described Bragg as “very responsive” to Winthrop’s needs, particularly at a time when there has been high job turnover in the Town Office.

Bragg “can remember things that will amaze you about our town and our particular situation,” Frost said.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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