BELGRADE — A half-dozen residents are raising concerns with the town manager’s candidacy for Legislature, saying the elective office will take away too much time from his municipal responsibilities.

And one former selectman said that he hopes if Dennis Keschl wins the election, he resigns his town post.

Others at a select board meeting Tuesday night, including current selectmen, supported Keschl keeping both jobs, saying he checked with them before the Republican caucus nomination and assured residents his performance on town business will be carefully monitored if he wins the District 76 House seat.

The discussion Tuesday night — which was watched by 14 people in the audience — was in response to a letter from resident Bruce Hazard asking the board a series of questions about Keschl’s salary, candidacy, and intentions.

“I, for one, do not believe that our town manager should be running for political office while continuing to serve as town manager,” Hazard wrote.

Hazard himself had notified town officials by email he would not be at the meeting.

Select board Chairman Rick Damren had suggested postponing the discussion, saying the letter came in after he had signed off on the agenda, but the five-member board decided to deal with it Tuesday night.

Hazard wrote in the letter dated Sept. 14, 2018, that while he was at the Town Office paying his property taxes and returning a Keschl campaign sign “placed on my lawn without my consent,” it occurred to him that he — a registered Democrat — might indirectly be supporting the campaign of Keschl, who is running as a Republican, because the town pays Keschl’s salary.

While Hazard listed the manager’s benefits as at $100,000, Keschl quickly corrected it to say he makes $66,250, declines health benefits, and that he had accepted the 2.5 percent raise the board gave town staffers, and accepts a $1,800 annual retirement contribution from the town.

Keschl said the post of town manager is budgeted for $100,000, but that is not what it costs the town now.

“If I were to drop dead and you had to hire someone, you need money there to pay for those things; that’s why the account looks like it’s near $100,000,” Keschl said.

Keschl said that he put in $300 of his own money to start his campaign, and contributions have come in from friends and other supporters. He said he campaigned for one three-hour stint on Saturday. “I do not campaign on taxpayer time,” he said.

He added, “I believe I’m disappointing many of my constituents in House District 76 because I have been unable to visit them because I’ve been working on issues for the town.”

He also said he became a candidate only after the primary when Republican incumbent Gary Hilliard, also of Belgrade, dropped out for personal reasons. Keschl said he went to the select board to check with them before signing on — because he had committed to stay for three to five years — and that he sought guidance from the Maine Ethics Commission, which indicated there was no conflict in a municipal employee holding a state office.

Several other town managers have served in the Legislature, and currently James Gillway, town manager of Searsport, represents House District 98, Frankfort, Searsport, Swansville and Winterport.

“I would say without any doubt, 20 years ago you could not do it,” Gillway, a Republican, said from his Searsport office on Wednesday. “But with today’s electronics and computers, you can do it. I am able to work on town business remotely in Augusta from my office computer. I can do it on my computer and even on my phone. I’ve been doing it for eight years.”

He also said some people were skeptical that he could do both jobs well, and one selectman refused to sign his contract the first year, but did so in later years. After eight years, Gillway is termed out of his seat and opted against running in the much larger Senate district.

Gillway also mentioned the late Donald Strout, who was a sitting legislator when he became town manager of Corinth in 1979. Strout served in the House for 22 years while remaining town manager.

Belgrade selectmen nodded in agreement as Keschl made his statements Tuesday night.

“I have full confidence in Dennis,” said Michael Barrett, vice chairman. “We gave him our blessing,” said Selectman Melanie Jewell.

“We said if things didn’t work out, we’d be right on you,” Damren said.

While Ernie Rice, who resigned his selectman’s seat in March 2018, suggested Keschl quit the town job if he wins, another former selectman, Gary Mahler, said, “I don’t want Denny to resign at all,” telling him, “I have faith in the fact you’ll act in the best interests of the town. I think you’re doing just fine. I’d like to see Denny run and get elected. I think the town has benefits by having Denny in the Legislature.”

Mahler also said he was the person who placed the Keschl sign in a public right of way near Hazard’s property.

Rice said he intends to vote for Keschl. “I don’t question that he is definitely dedicated to the town of Belgrade,” Rice said.

But he said he had an additional concern: “Denny’s in Augusta and taking care of the town business on a part-time basis, but we had to have a full-time librarian to manage an 1,800-square foot-library with two assistants open 30 hours a week. We had to have that, but we can live with a part-time manager off and on.”

Rice and Kathryn Brown both sought a re-vote by residents on the March 2018 proposal that gave the town a full-time town librarian. The re-vote was rejected by the board.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Brown said that if Keschl is elected, “This essentially makes this job part-time.” She said residents expect Keschl to be at the office during business hours except during vacations, days off and sick days. “We don’t expect to have to find him at the State House, we expect his attention to be primarily in the town.”

Keschl said he is occasionally out of the office on town business and that if someone calls, he returns the call immediately.

“You’ll get the services from me that you’re getting now,” Keschl said.

Another Belgrade resident, Fred Kohler, said, “I noticed in the town manager’s, Denny’s answers to Mr. Hazard’s letter that he did mention that it’s two jobs, the Legislature and here. And we’re asked to take his word for it that he can do a complete job on both.” He added, “It just seems like a conflict of interest to me.”

Keschl served in the Legislature 2011-2014, in the District 83 seat at the time, which included Belgrade, Fayette, Manchester, Mount Vernon and Vienna. The District 76 seat includes Belgrade, Fayette, Mount Vernon, Rome, Vienna and Wayne.

“My entire life is about public service for the past 40-some years,” Keschl said. “That’s why I’m committed to the job as town manager and committed to the people of District 76 if I should be so lucky to be elected.”

Keschl is running against Democrat Carole L. Carothers on the Nov. 6, 2018, ballot.

The board indicated it would respond to Hazard by letter, suggesting he listen to the recording of the 50-minute discussion at the meeting.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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