OGUNQUIT — After a busy summer of hosting guests at his bed and breakfast, Rick Barber looks forward to the quiet off-season in Ogunquit. With the beaches empty and most businesses closed, it’s a more social time for year-round residents.

“You don’t have as much going on, so you have time to check in on other people and spend more time with each other,” Barber said. “It’s much calmer. Sometimes it feels like a much friendlier town.”

But this off-season is different.

For the past three months, the smallest town in York County has been gripped by a debate over the future of three of its Select Board members, who could be removed from office following Ogunquit’s first recall election. The campaign to recall board members Charles “Bunky” Waite III, Madeline Mooney and Robert Winn Jr. began after the town’s fire chief was fired and grew in intensity as a citizens group lodged a litany of complaints and allegations against the elected officials they want to oust from office.

That tension spilled over this month during a contentious hearing on the validity of signatures on recall petitions and is likely to continue as the town gears up for the recall election, which is anticipated to happen in late March or early April.

From left, Robert Winn Jr., Madeline Mooney and John Daley listen to public comment during last week’s meeting of the Ogunquit Select Board.

Barber, owner of the Moon Over Maine B&B, found himself in the middle of the recall debate when his residency was questioned by a group that opposes the recall. Barber – who signed the recall petitions for two board members but hasn’t decided if they should be removed from office – showed up at a hearing on Jan. 11 to tell the town clerk he does live in Ogunquit even though his husband owns a second home in neighboring Cape Neddick.

“It was a circus,” said Barber, who responded to opponents’ questions by publicly confirming he and his husband share a bed.

The acrimony evident at that hearing has carried into subsequent Select Board meetings and onto Facebook, where residents post about their support for board members or outline why they should be removed from office. Take Back Ogunquit and the Ogunquit Residents Alliance, the groups on either side of the issue, have traded accusations of forgery and voter intimidation.

“What is going on in Ogunquit is terrible,” said Selectman John Daley, who is not facing recall. “It’s the most divisive thing to happen in our history.”

‘IT’S DIVIDED THE TOWN SO MUCH’

At just over four square miles, Ogunquit is the smallest and newest of the 29 towns in York County. The coastal village was an active art colony even before it was incorporated in 1980 and has since become known as a friendly destination for families and LGBT tourists. The year-round population of less than a thousand swells to 30,000 in the summer, when tourists flock to the “Beautiful Place by the Sea” to visit the picture-perfect beaches and watch plays at the iconic Ogunquit Playhouse.

The town is not unfamiliar with political upheaval and locals say there are often disagreements about local politics, but for many this feels different.

“It’s divided the town so much,” said Rusty Hayes, a planning board member who supports the recall. “It’s really unfortunate and it doesn’t have to be this way. We thought we were moving forward.”

The small-town politics of Ogunquit made headlines in 2016 when former Town Manager Thomas Fortier was charged with stealing money collected from parking fees, setting off a swirl of corruption allegations and a push by residents to bring more transparency to municipal government. After Fortier resigned in 2017, the town hired a new manager and the composition of the Select Board changed.

The division on the Select Board was clear early last October when around 200 people crowded into the Dunaway Center for a termination appeal hearing for Mark O’Brien, who had served with the fire department for 37 years, including the last six years as chief. He had been placed on leave the previous June while Town Manager Patricia Finnigan investigated complaints about his management style and interaction with department staff. Finnigan, who had been on the job for about a year, fired O’Brien in September.

The termination appeal hearing grew heated and the chairman of the Select Board ultimately had the audience removed when people began shouting comments at board members after a motion to overturn the termination failed. In the end, the board voted 3-2 to uphold O’Brien’s termination.

Within days, the group Take Back Ogunquit was formed and residents began the process of removing from office the three board members – Mooney, Waite and Winn – who had supported the termination.

“This is a drastic action, but one that many believe is necessary for the future of our town,” Mark MacLeod, a planning board member, wrote in a letter to residents on behalf of Take Back Ogunquit.

‘LET THE RESIDENTS DECIDE’

The residents in Take Back Ogunquit include local business owners, former Select Board members and current members of the planning board and other town committees. While recall opponents say it is obvious that Take Back Ogunquit is trying to get rid of the new town manager by eliminating her support from the Select Board, recall backers say that is not the case.

“This is not about the town manager,” Hayes, the planning board member, said. “Our intent is to have a Select Board that discusses issues and makes reasonable decisions according to the charter. Our goal is to move beyond it and get back to business.”

Jerry DeHart, who helped collect signatures and organize the recall effort as part of Take Back Ogunquit, says, “the tone has gone sour. I didn’t expect that. … The faster the Select Board calls the recall vote, the less this will tear down the town.”

Take Back Ogunquit has released a list of seven primary reasons that led to the recall effort: violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution by the Select Board members for not reappointing a recreation committee member; collusion and abuse of position; mismanagement of the termination of the fire chief; poor management of the request for proposals process; allowing a violation of the town charter; disrespecting citizen input; and undermining the planning board.

MacLeod said the accusation of collusion and abuse of power stems from board members preventing a question about a new comprehensive plan from being placed on the ballot, prompting the committee that developed the plan to use the citizen petition process to force a vote. The board members also poorly managed the RFP process for improvements to beach bathrooms, allowed the town manager to create an ad hoc Beach Bathroom Advisory Committee in violation of the town charter, and undermined the planning board by not appointing an alternate member, he said.

Resident Wes Elliott said he supports the recall and is troubled by the tension splitting the town.

“All people are asking is that it come to a vote,” Elliott said while eating breakfast with friends at the Ogunquit Village Food Market. “Let the residents decide.”

Select Board Chairman Charles Waite III, left, and Selectman Richard Dolliver listen to public comments at a meeting Tuesday. Targeted in the Ogunquit recall effort, Waite says disagreeing with his decisions “is not sufficient reason to be recalled.”

Jerry DeHart, who helped collect signatures and organize the recall effort, said support for the recall has grown in the past few weeks.

“The tone has gone sour. I didn’t expect that,” DeHart said. “The faster (the Select Board) calls the recall vote, the less this will tear down the town.”

‘SADDENED BY THE TENSION’

Waite, who was elected to the Select Board in June 2017 and serves as chairman, said the fact that some people don’t agree with all of his decisions “is not sufficient reason to be recalled.” He has not violated the board’s code of ethics or done any of the other things Take Back Ogunquit alleges, he said.

“I find it unfortunate that some have chosen to go this (recall) route, but that is their right,” he said.

When Waite was running for office, residents told him they wanted the town to “get back on track and progress,” he said. Since then, he has been conducting town government in a fair and open manner and working in the best interests of the taxpayers, he said.

“This is absolutely breaking my heart as an elected official. It goes against everything I think would be productive for the community,” Waite said. “It’s upsetting to see the tension between everyone, regardless of whether they support the recall or they don’t. The reality is it leaves a very contentious taste in everyone’s mouth.”

Mooney, who also was elected in June 2017, said she is also upset by the tension caused by the recall. Like Waite, she is adamant she and the other board members facing recall have done nothing wrong and should not be removed from office. Winn, who was elected to his current term in June 2018, has not responded to interview requests.

Mooney said the seven reasons for the recall released by Take Back Ogunquit were only recently crafted “and are without merit.”

“I’m saddened by the tension it’s created in the community and hope that can change going forward once the facts are out,” she said. “I think the voters will want to continue the honest and progressive government we have today. We’ve moved on from numerous problems of the past.”

The Ogunquit Residents Alliance, which Mooney helped form, last week released a “recall fact vs. fiction” document in response to Take Back Ogunquit’s reasons for recall. The ORA says the real reason for the recall is to get rid of the town manager and disputes every reason outlined by Take Back Ogunquit.

Ogunquit’s typically sleepy at this time of year, but a group has submitted petitions seeking a recall election in an effort to oust three of its five selectmen. The small-town political upheaval has been a source of intense acrimony.

In response to each allegation, the ORA outlined why or how the board made decisions, including basing their decision not to reappoint the recreation committee member on information provided by the interim town manager. Board members properly responded to the fire chief’s termination, followed the RFP process for the beach bathhouse, and did not violate the town charter by allowing the manager to form an ad hoc committee, according to the group.

Peter Kahn, chairman of the ORA, supports the board members facing recall and said he is offended that they could be removed from office because some in town don’t support the town manager. He is concerned about the overall recall process and has hired a lawyer to fight the election in court.

“The charter is deficient in the (recall) process,” he said. “The town is making things up as it goes along because the charter isn’t totally clear on what happens.”

‘IT’S UGLY, BUT WE’LL GET THROUGH’

Kahn’s concerns about the recall process were on full display during the hearing Jan. 11 on challenges to the recall petitions submitted by Take Back Ogunquit.

Take Back Ogunquit collected nearly 300 signatures for each board member it wants to recall. Under the recall process outlined in the town charter, any resident can challenge those signatures after they were submitted to the town clerk. Kahn and three other members of the ORA filed challenges to about two dozen signatures, saying either the person who signed was not a resident or that the signature didn’t match others from the same voter. The ORA also questioned the validity of all of the petitions.

During the hearing, more than 100 residents sat in the auditorium at the Dunaway Center as Town Clerk Chris Murphy heard arguments about the challenges. Many in the audience bristled and muttered comments as Stephen Langsdorf, a Preti Flaherty attorney hired by Kahn, questioned people about whether they lived in town. Barber, the bed and breakfast owner, shook his head in disgust when he was questioned about his living arrangements and a Facebook post about a lost dog that was cited as evidence that he really lives in Cape Neddick.

After the hearing, the town clerk threw out most of the challenges and certified the recall petitions. The petitions included 257 valid signatures to recall Mooney, 259 signatures to recall Waite and 253 signatures to recall Winn. There are 1,205 registered voters in Ogunquit.

Langsdorf, who specializes in municipal law, said he and his client believe the town should not allow the recall election to move forward until there is an investigation into whether all signatures are valid and properly gathered, and it is determined there were no incidents of fraud in the petition process. Langsdorf said several petitions must be decertified because there is evidence the circulator did not personally witness all signatures and that signatures of improperly registered voters must be also disqualified, among other issues.

“The only fair way to do this is disqualify the process. If someone is going to be removed from office, the charter should be followed,” Langsdorf said.

Last Tuesday, the Select Board officially received the recall petitions and unanimously agreed to decide during a Feb. 5 meeting when the recall election will be held. But the board argued about whether to hire an independent attorney to advise it on recall issues and any potential legal challenges. Daley and Rick Dolliver, the two board members not facing recall, voted against the motion, saying the town attorney had already reviewed the recall process with the board in executive session and in public.

Dolliver, who supports the recall, said he questions whether Waite, Mooney and Winn are upholding the town charter if they oppose the recall process the town clerk has followed and is frustrated that there could be further delays to the recall election.

“I feel like we’re circumventing what we’re supposed to be doing,” he said.

Daley said the Select Board is the least transparent it has been in the seven years since he was first elected and he sees no way forward other than recalling Mooney, Waite and Winn. He has also been shocked by the divisiveness that has roiled the community.

“People are so emotional and involved because they love the town. When something like this recall comes up, people on both sides dig their heels in and won’t listen to each other,” he said. “It’s ugly, but we’ll get through this because we’re a community. We have a lot of work ahead of us regardless of how it goes.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

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