The Mechanic Falls Town Office on July 18, 2019. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

MECHANIC FALLS — Last summer, Chairman Louis Annance’s Town Council seat was put up for election.

His term had ended, a town official said. Charter-sanctioned term limits meant he couldn’t run again right away. It was time for him to go, so Mechanic Falls voters elected someone else.

Mechanic Falls Council Vice Chairman Wayne Hackett listens to the proceedings during a special meeting at the town office in June of 2019. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Except Annance’s three-year term wasn’t up — he still had one year left. It’s unclear why no one noticed.

Vice Chairman Wayne Hackett now holds that seat and experts say his position on the council is potentially problematic for the already-beleaguered town. It could cast doubt on all council votes taken since he started serving — including the controversial dismissal of its new town manager this summer.

Experts say such an election situation is highly unusual. Two veteran town managers with decades of experience say it lands somewhere between rare and unheard of.

“This is a huge can of worms,” said a retired central Maine town manager who asked not to be named.

It’s not Mechanic Falls’ first election irregularity. In 2014, Hackett’s name was briefly left off the ballot when he ran for the council that year. This March, in an email to the council, Town Manager Zakk Maher of Poland also called into question the 2011 Town Council election involving incumbent Daniel Blanchard.

Zakk Maher Submitted photo

“Councilor Blanchard should have been re-elected, as well, but instead remained for a full additional term of 3 years without being re-elected,” Maher wrote in an email recently released with 200 others at the Sun Journal’s request.

Through his lawyer, Adam Lee, Maher said he could find no records confirming Blanchard’s re-election.

In that same March email, Maher advised the council that Hackett’s 2018 replacement of Annance presented a problem.

As Maher fights his firing in another controversy — there’s even a question whether he has been fired — and as the council deals with increasing anger from residents and a recall campaign, the email brings to light just how much more turmoil the town may face.

“All of this could be messy and unpredictable from a legal point of view,” Maher wrote.

A SPREADSHEET ERROR

Very little is clear about the Mechanic Falls 2018 Town Council election.

What is known: Two seats were put up for election, each for a three-year term. One seat was occupied by Nicholas Konstantoulakis, who hadn’t yet hit his term limit and could run again. The other seat was occupied by Annance, the council chairman.

Konstantoulakis won re-election. Hackett was voted in to Annance’s seat.

Under the town charter, Annance’s seat should not have been up for election. In 2016, residents voted to seat him for three years, until June 2019. Even if he had resigned early — which he had not — the town charter calls for his elected replacement to serve out whatever remained of the term, not to start fresh with a new three-year seat.

Virtually everything else is in dispute, including who knew what, when they knew it and who was ultimately at fault.

As town clerk at the time, Miranda Hinkley was responsible for handling elections. She said she’d been given a spreadsheet that listed town officials and their term expiration dates and went by that for official business. She said she relied upon that spreadsheet when she dealt with the town’s annual report — which correctly listed Annance’s three-year term in 2016  but listed it incorrectly the following year.

Miranda Hinkley

Hinkley also used that spreadsheet when she put Annance’s seat on the ballot.

“I became the clerk in July 2016 with no experience and minimal training as the previous clerk was already gone,” she said in an email to the Sun Journal this week. “I used a spreadsheet provided to determine dates and in hindsight should have looked at election docs to ensure the spreadsheet was accurate.”

Hinkley said she’d gotten that spreadsheet from the town manager at the time, Koriene Low.

Low disputed that this week via text. It was the other way around, she said — she’d gotten the spreadsheet from Hinkley.

“It was given to me updated by the clerk. This was done because the clerk usually had (a) longer employment term,” said Low, who served as town manager from 2015 to 2018.

She added that Hinkley “maintained the electronic copy. I never entered or made changes to it. I reviewed it with her before giving (it) to council. I didn’t know of any problem.”

Annance said he hadn’t known of any problem, either.

“At the time, I was told by the town clerk that I would be terming out,” he said by email. “There was a lot going on at the time and I didn’t think much of it. The council was busy looking for a new town manager and we were also busy tying up loose ends with the medical building purchase downtown. I never learned of the mistake until after the election.”

Hinkley denies that she told Annance his time was up.

“I also asked Louis Annance about it and he said he knew the whole time, but Koriene (Low) told him he was up, and he wasn’t going to argue,” Hinkley said.

Annance said that’s not true.

“I was not made aware of the situation until after the elections,” he said. “It’s the job of the election clerk, town clerk, Miranda Hinkley at the time, and not the town manager, to keep this sort of thing straight.”

Annance said he can’t remember when he learned he’d lost his seat early, but he said it was at least a couple of months after the election because he remembers that Maher was the new town manager. Maher started in August 2018.

“I made a remark along the lines of, ‘Oh well, it’s too late now,'” Annance said. “I  really enjoyed being on the council and would have certainly stayed on through the end of my term.”

Hinkley said she stumbled on the election situation while researching a Maine Freedom of Access Act request. She believes she made the discovery earlier this year.

She said she brought the problem to Maher’s attention.

In March, an email shows, Maher brought it to the council.

THE PLAN: DO NOTHING

In the email, Maher told the council that the Mechanic Falls clerks had investigated the Town Council election cycle. The charter requires a 2-2-1 cycle — two council seats up for election one year, two seats up the following year, one seat up the year after — but the town had somehow gotten away from that. Two seats were up for election in 2018 when only one should have been.

“Councilor Annance should have remained one additional year to complete his full term in 2019,” Maher said in the email.

This could cause a problem, he told the council.

“There are potential complaints that could be raised. (#1 Councilor Annance having a claim to their current seat, #2 Councilor Hackett only having been elected for the remainder of Councilor Annance’s term of 1  year or #3 Councilor Annance not being able to run again this year because they had not officially taken a year off.),” he wrote.

The Maine Municipal Association provides legal advice to towns that are in trouble or worried about potential trouble. The association was, apparently, one of Maher’s first calls.

“MMA Legal has refused to offer an opinion due to the potential implication of this,” he wrote to the council.

Fred Collins Jr., right, the interim town manager in Mechanic Falls, listens to comments from the crowd during a special meeting at the Town Office in June. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal.

The MMA declined to confirm Maher’s call or to comment for this story.

Maher told councilors that he then consulted the town’s lawyer, Jack Conway. After “weighing all the potential claims individuals could raise,” Maher said, he and Conway agreed on a course of action: Do nothing.

“This will ensure that no one goes longer than the 3 year period allowed and no one else will have their term cut short,” Maher wrote to the council.

Conway did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.

It is unclear how councilors responded to Maher’s email or whether they did. There were no replies in the 200 emails provided to the Sun Journal.

Lee, Maher’s lawyer, said Maher couldn’t recall any specific, official follow-up.

“He couldn’t remember whether there were conversations that happened afterward or whether there were emails that happened afterward,” Lee said.

He said Maher had planned to reach out to Annance after that March email to find out more about what had transpired, but that conversation never happened.

“Then they were quick into budget season and so, you know, normal municipal stuff, everything just drops for budget season. Then (Maher’s) termination came up shortly thereafter. He just never got a chance to double back to this,” Lee said.

Both Maher and Hinkley said Hackett, the councilor in Annance’s seat, approached Hinkley after the March email.

“Wayne Hackett made me show him the proof,” Hinkley said.

She recalled that afterward “he just said that it must be the case since I showed him proof.”

Hackett and Chairwoman Cathy Fifield did not return calls or emails seeking comment for this story.

‘BIZARRE’

The Sun Journal presented Mechanic Falls’ situation to two retired, veteran town managers for their opinions. One called the situation “rare.” Another said he’d never seen it before.

“It’s a new one on me,” said the manager who asked to remain anonymous.

He called the situation “bizarre.”

“There’s a lot of people in the system, in the chain of command over there, that should have caught that,” he said.

Neither man is directly involved with Mechanic Falls’ situation, but both said the facts — a council seat put up for election and filled contrary to the charter — sounded potentially problematic for the town. Since Hackett did not fill a legally open seat, he may not be a valid councilor. And if he’s not a valid councilor, every vote the council has taken since last summer’s election may be called into question.

Mechanic Falls Town Council Chairwoman Cathy Fifield listens to the angry crowd during a special meeting at the Town Office in June. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“If in fact they were illegally put into office, it’s like evidence in the police department — if you taint the initial evidence going into it, every bit of evidence that comes out of that, that’s related to it, is also tainted. It’s called the poison fruit of the poison tree,” said Mitchell Berkowitz, who has about 45 years of experience as a town manager.

He emphasized that he was not offering legal advice. The town, he said, must speak to its lawyer.

The other town manager said his first call would have been to the Secretary of State’s Office, which handles statewide elections. It’s unclear whether Maher approached that office.

“This is one of those spaces where we need to recognize the existence of attorney-client privilege between the town and its attorney, and that Zakk is not at liberty to waive that privilege for the town,” Lee said.

If someone wanted to lodge a complaint about the election, it is unclear where they would go. A spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office said her office may offer advice, but it does not oversee town elections. She suggested the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

A spokesman for the Maine Attorney General’s Office said his office “would not get involved in a situation like this, as it is a town issue and the state would not have oversight.”

He pointed to a state statute that allows elections to be contested in Superior Court for 30 days following voting. However, the statute refers only to claims made by someone who believes they won an election and does not address potential complaints brought by residents or others affected by an election that violated a charter.

NOT THE ONLY PROBLEM

The 2018 election was not the only one with issues in Mechanic Falls. In all, possible election problems span eight years and the tenures of two town managers and three town clerks.

In 2014, Hackett’s name was left off the Town Council ballot. No one noticed until Hackett saw a Sun Journal story about the election and realized the mentioned “three-way race” should have been a four-way. Hackett brought it to the attention of Town Manager John Hawley, who found Hackett’s nomination papers in the clerk’s office.

“We aren’t entirely sure how it happened,” Hawley told the Sun Journal at the time. “Clearly, it was human error, one of those things that happen.”

The town had to quickly prepare new ballots and notify the 14 residents who had already cast absentee ballots.

That error was made public right away. Potential problems with the 2011 election have not been public until now.

In his March email to the council, Maher said that Blanchard, then council chairman and an incumbent running again for his seat, “remained for a full additional term” but “without being re-elected.”

Through his lawyer, Maher said he’d been unable to find any documents supporting Blanchard’s win.

“They didn’t have records that could confirm his election. So it very well may be that he was elected, but there’s just a paperwork error,” Lee said. “He seems to recall — and, again, he doesn’t have access to these documents anymore — but he seems to recall that there was a bit of a problem with several elections around that time period. They didn’t have records to confirm them.”

On July 26, the Sun Journal submitted a public records request to Mechanic Falls for all Town Council election results for 2009 through 2019, as well as other public information. Interim Town Manager Fred Collins Jr. responded by email that the town is “short staffed as it is” and, “We will do our best however we have a town to run and this will take time.” As of Friday, the election results had not been released.

Lisa Palmer was town clerk in 2011. In a recent interview, she said she was diligent about keeping election records and they should be readily available.

“They couldn’t have vanished,” she said, adding that if the election results are missing, “that would be a big offense.”

“Those are critical documents for the town,” she said.

Palmer said she always attached the election results to the minutes of the first council meeting held after June elections. However, there were no election results connected to the 2011 June or July meeting minutes made available to the Sun Journal this week by the town.

Palmer said she doesn’t remember anything odd about the 2011 election and can’t imagine that Blanchard served for three years without having been actually re-elected.

“I find it hard to believe what (Maher) is saying is true,” said Palmer, who left the job in 2012. “The town manager we had at the time, between he and I and the girls that were there at the time when I was there, we really were on top of all of that.”

Hawley was Mechanic Falls’ town manager in 2011. Now town manager in Naples, Hawley did not respond to an email seeking comment. His assistant said he was away for the week and unreachable.

Blanchard, however, was reachable. When he was asked about any possible issues with his 2011 election, he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Blanchard, 78, said he didn’t remember much about the 2011 election, though he did recall running. Asked if he remembered winning, Blanchard said, “I must have.”

Mechanic Falls resident Milton Walker addresses the councilors at a special meeting in the town hall on June 25, 2019.  Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

CONTINUED TURMOIL

The newly public election issues come at a tumultuous time for Mechanic Falls.

In June, the council voted 4-1 to dismiss Maher just 10 months into his four-year contract. The legality of that vote has been called into question for several reasons, including the fact that the council’s incoming member, John Emery II, attended the meeting and voted before his term had officially started. The council also apparently failed to follow the charter’s rules for removing a town manager.

The council has since taken a second vote in an attempt to follow the charter, though the legality of that vote has also been called into question. Recently, the council changed its official stance, saying Maher has not been terminated but has been placed on administrative leave until a public hearing on his dismissal. That public hearing has been scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 15.

The council has said it wants Maher gone due to a “lack of communication, follow through and fit with the town,” but it has refused to make any other details public. Townspeople have packed two special council sessions — one held in an elementary school gym because of the turnout — but they received few answers about the firing. In July, Maher filed suit to force the town to disclose the details behind his dismissal.

Seated under a tent at the Mechanic Falls transfer station facility on Wednesday, Tom Webster waited to assist residents who wanted to sign any or all of the four petitions to recall Chairwoman Cathy Fifield, Vice Chairman Wayne Hackett and councilors Nicholas Konstantoulakis and John Emery. Eriks Petersons photo

The 200 emails released as part of the Sun Journal’s request show the council voted to terminate Maher three months after he emailed the council about the 2011 and 2018 elections. They also show that his firing came a couple of months after Fifield, the council chairwoman, grew angry about Maher’s decision to end the town’s summer rec program after its director left and to partner with the YMCA program in Auburn. Fifield ordered Maher to drop the YMCA plan and hire a new director, but there appeared to be disagreement over Maher’s power to hire a recreation director and Fifield’s power to order him to.

“I am not sure why he does not recognize me as the council or why he could not have brought (it) to the attention of the remaining council if he was unclear on the direction he was supposed to take,” Fifield wrote in an April email to two fellow town councilors and people associated with Mechanic Falls Recreation.

Some residents have grown so angry about the council’s firing of Maher that they have started a petition to recall almost the entire council. Kieth Bennett, the only councilor who opposed Maher’s firing, is not included.

That recall process could take weeks to months.

Mechanic Falls’ day-to-day operation is now being handled by Collins, the interim town manager. The town also has an interim town clerk; Hinkley quit three days after Maher was fired.

She said this week that she’s sorry if last year’s election causes problems.

“If it was my mistake, I apologize to the townspeople,” she said. “I wish Lou Annance would have spoke up and we would have investigated at that point and found the error.”

Eriks Petersons contributed to this report.


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