Willard Pierpont, left, the road commissioner in Somerville, and Ralph Turner, the former road commissioner, wait Monday for a load of gravel to arrive to continue grading Crummett Mountain Road.

SOMERVILLE — Residents want more control over who is managing their roads.

That is one item on which they will be voting at Somerville’s special town meeting, scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Saturday at Somerville Elementary School.

A citizen’s petition, circulated by Claudia Fujinaga, is asking residents whether they would like to return the road commissioner’s position from an appointed role to one that is elected.

Fujinaga said the town previously elected the road commissioner, who is paid $1,000 a month, and some residents would like to return to that method following frustrations about work that was done — or not done — after the first appointed road commissioner took the job.

Chris Johnson, Somerville’s first selectman, said the petition is a straw poll asking what people prefer. Recognizing the petition’s intent to call for action, however, the Select Board created a subsequent warrant article to be read if the citizen’s petition passes to change the road commissioner position to a one-year, elected term, beginning in June.

 

PROBLEMS SURFACE

The position was first made an appointed one during the 2016 town meeting, when residents voted to make the switch from an elected road commissioner. That meant the Select Board would vet and hire candidates based on a set of qualifications, and the road commissioner would report to them.

According to minutes from the 2016 town meeting, Susan Greer, then a member of the Select Board, said the town would decide the roads that would be paved and set the road budget.

Don Chase, who served as selectman in 2016, said essential work by Jesse Turner, the last elected road commissioner, was not getting done before winter started. Because the town does not have a recall provision in its charter, it could not fire the employee. When Turner’s term ended in 2017, Josh Platt was appointed.

Turmoil between residents, the Select Board and Platt grew as a result of work done with $800,000 from a bond approved at the 2017 town meeting. Chase said that money was supposed to help fund a 10-year road plan created by E.S. Coffin Engineering & Surveying of Chelsea.

Fujinaga said town officials made the decision to pave Jones Road, despite objections from town residents. She said that work meant the town did not have enough money to do an adequate job repairing Somerville Road.

Fujinaga said the Select Board at the time — Greer, Chase and Darlene Landry — signed off on cutting back the job and Hagar Enterprises Inc. of Damariscotta, the job’s contractor, paved it in cold, wet conditions.

“We got screwed,” Fujinaga said. “It was terrible the way they ruined things.”

According to the Lincoln County News, Platt said at a September 2019 Select Board meeting that 17% of the paving done in the fall of 2017 failed because it did not adhere to the road bed and began to show issues that winter.

He said three borings testing the condition of the roadbed prior to reconstruction did not accurately indicate its composition, and the tests were how Select Board members based their decision to pave the road.

Eighteen post-construction borings by E.S. Coffin showed issues within the roadbed that led to problems with the pavement.

Platt asserted if cold, wet conditions were the culprit, then the whole surface would have failed, according to reports. He did not respond last week to the Kennebec Journal’s request seeking comment.

Seth Hagar of Hagar Enterprises said his company performed the work it was paid to do: simply pave the road. He said the scope of work provided to bidders did not include a performance bond, which would have provided a warranty on the work. Hagar said the town did “a limited amount of engineering on a road that is very large.”

“We’ve been constantly criticized over this,” Hagar said. “The fact of the matter is we did everything — plus some — that we were asked.”

“I was proud of the way we handled the situation,” Hagar added, noting that his company incurred costs to provide options for repairs on Somerville Road. “Obviously, we like to see every job go without a hiccup but that’s not practical.”

Resident John Bergen said this week Platt should have advised the Select Board not to move forward with the work, and Hagar should not have paved the road in a substandard way.

The Lincoln County News reported repairs to Somerville Road in 2018 cost $135,000, on top of the original estimate of $401,000 to pave the road. The final figure for the original construction cost was not available, according to the report.

Bergen said this week that some of the town’s dirt roads were also mishandled, including the use of a custom blend of gravel on Colby Road, which “was a mess” when it rained.

Noting he has experience in rock blasting, Bergen said the town’s custom blend cost about $9 per ton more than better gravel that is available locally.

Further, he said the Crummett Mountain Road, on which he and Fujinaga live, was repaired with cobblestones with plans to cover it with another material to make it smooth. He said the town then did not have the money to smooth it over, leaving a “jagged, sharp, tire-ripping” surface.

Bergen said he offered a $30,000 loan at 1% interest to the town to repair the road on the condition the gravel used comes from a pit owned by current Road Commissioner Willard Pierpont. He said the town declined his offer, and when he later approached the Select Board with questions about the materials used in road repairs, he was “lectured” about “sticking his nose” into town business.

“We got really boned by some poor leadership,” Bergen said. “When it comes down to it, (Platt) was covering up for Susan Greer’s ignorance and poor decision-making, and the town is strapped with paying back $800,000 and our roads in town are in the worst shape they’ve ever been.”

Johnson said, in hindsight, more borings should have been done on the road before construction.

“The selectmen at that time were not trying to spend money at that time,” he said. “More core drilling should have been done.”

Chase said Platt did a good job on the town’s gravel roads but lacked experience with tar roads. Chase also said the repairs to Somerville Road led to some roads not being repaired at all.

“It ended up just being not enough information to get things right,” Chase said. “We ended up spending extra money that ate up more of the bond then we figured.”

 

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS

The Lincoln County News reported Nov. 6, 2019, that a group of Somerville residents, led by Fujinaga and Bergen, approached the Lincoln County commissioners seeking to prompt an investigation from the commissioners into the town’s failure to adequately improve the roads. The newspaper reported again in November 2019 that the Maine Department of Transportation was reviewing a petition regarding Crummett Mountain Road from Somerville residents.

Paul Merrill, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said Friday that Lincoln County commissioners and engineers from the state DOT believe the Crummett Mountain Road is safe.

“It’s on the town Select Board as far as we’re concerned,” he said.

Lincoln County Administrator Carrie Kipfer said Monday the county commissioners could have forced the town to pay for repairs to the Crummett Mountain Road following a public hearing at the road, but they referred the petition back to the Somerville Select Board.

Pierpont was appointed as road commissioner in November 2019 after Platt resigned in October 2019. He said the town’s roads are in “worse shape” than before the bond was taken out in 2017.

Johnson said roads are “certainly not in better shape,” and estimated it could take five years to get the roads back up to preferred condition.

“We’ve got to change our materials and practices a bit,” Johnson said. “Within what we’ve got, we’ve got to target the places that are the worst year-to-year.”

 

ELECTED VERSUS APPOINTED

Fujinaga said she favored electing Pierpont for the job, citing he is a resident of the town and owns a gravel pit. When asked if she would be worried about the town electing a less-qualified road commissioner in the future, Fujinaga said the whole town will show up to vote on a road commissioner and residents will know who is right for the job.

“The old-timers will be there and they will know who is knowledgeable and who isn’t,” Fujinaga said. “We know who’s good and who isn’t good.”

Pierpont, who said he would run for the position should it be changed to an elected role, said he preferred that method. He said it would streamline the process of fixing the roads because appointed officials work for the Select Board, which only meets a couple of times a month to sign off on work. When the position was elected, Pierpont said, the commissioner just had to work within a budget.

“It would just make it a lot easier,” he said.

Johnson said the road commissioner proposes a road budget and creates an improvement plan, but the Select Board would still decide what gets done and how much money is earmarked for the work.

He also noted that with an appointed position, the Select Board has the option to discipline or remove a commissioner, while an elected commissioner cannot be removed by the board or residents.

Johnson said the Select Board does not have to sign off on all work being done, but does make decisions on entering into contracts and deciding from where sand would be purchased. He noted that Pierpont owns a business that has provided quotes for sand, and it would be a conflict of interest for him to make those choices.


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