GARDINER — The Gardiner City Council voted unanimously Thursday to declare the council seat held by Penny Sergent vacant as of Monday, following months of conflict between her and the city that also involved the foreclosure of her home over nonpayment of taxes.

Penny Sergent

The move paves the way for elected officials to seek statements of interest from Gardiner residents who would like to serve on the City Council, and to appoint someone to fill that seat until the election in June.

The status of Sergent’s seat has been up in the air since the start of September, which was the deadline Sergent and city officials had agreed to for her to vacate the house at 596 Water St.

Sergent and her family had lived in the house since 2016 when Sergent bought the property and continued to live there after the city foreclosed on the property for unpaid property taxes and sewer fees totaling more than $12,000. At the end of August, Sergent was staying at a hotel in Augusta.

“We have a councilor that has given us her intention in writing to move to Saco,” Mayor Patricia Hart said. “We believe she has. We know she’s not living in her previous address, and she’s given us no forwarding specifics.”

The Gardiner city charter, the document that outlines how the city governs itself, requires that Gardiner elected officials live in the city. But it is silent on what happens if an elected official moves outside city limits.

Before the meeting, the City Council received a copy of an opinion, written by  Maine Attorney General G. Steven Rowe in 2008, in the case of Helen Poulin, an Androscoggin county commissioner who had moved outside the district she represented to another location in Androscoggin County.

Rowe wrote that while Maine courts had not directly addressed the issue, his office believed a court would conclude a vacancy occurs when a county commissioner changes residence to another electoral division. The Attorney General’s Office had found only one Law Court decision addressing whether a vacancy was created by the incumbent moving from the district. In 1916, the Law Court found that a municipal court judge in Saco had vacated his position when he moved to Bangor and rented out his house in Saco because the statute governing the appointment expressly stated the holder of the office was required to live in Saco while he held that office.

“It would seem appropriate in our duty to not request her resignation but demand it, or vote that she’s not on the council anymore,” District 1 Councilor Terry Berry said.

Because Thursday was the deadline to turn in nomination papers for seats up for election in November, Hart suggested the motion be made effective Monday to avoid confusion.

“That will give people a chance at our next meeting to come forward, and we can appoint somebody,” she said.

That person will serve until the June election, at which point the seat would be filled at that election.

Sergent, who has missed more City Council meetings than she has attended since she took office in January, lashed out at city officials after her property appeared on a list of tax-acquired properties in February. At that meeting, District 2 Councilor Amy Rees called on Sergent to resign, a move endorsed by several city councilors.

Sergent was not at that meeting, but the following day, she said she was being poor-shamed and said she would not resign.

City records show she was given the chance to sign an agreement and make payments on her back taxes, but she never completed the paperwork, nor did she make any payments.

A public records request by the Kennebec Journal found that over the course of months, Sergent had sent dozens of emails from her City of Gardiner email account to Hart and Acting City Manager Anne Davis. Among other things, she accused Hart of having a narcissistic personality disorder, lying and hating poor people, and has repeatedly called on her to resign. Sergent demanded documents under threat of subpoena and accused Davis of disenfranchising her by preventing her from joining virtual meetings and of kicking her out of her house.

As the City Council moved to create the vacancy, the ballot for the November election is taking shape.

Councilors Berry, District 1; Colin Frey, District 3; and Marc Rines, District 4 are running for reelection.

Rees, who represents District 2, opted not to run again.

Rees was appointed in 2019 to fill the District 2 vacancy on the council created when Hart was elected mayor. She ran and was elected to a two-year term later that year.

Rees said Thursday she’s been honored to have served District 2 for three years.

Among the challenges she has seen while on the City Council has been trying to meet the budgetary needs of all the services that are provided for city residents while trying to keep taxes from going up.

“We have kept taxes at the same mill rate for a number of years, and that’s pretty extraordinary,” she said.

Another challenge was Sergent’s behavior, she said.

Kerstin Gilg will run for the District 2 seat.

Gilg had expressed interest in the seat after Hart was elected mayor in 2019, along with Rees and Karen Tucker. He ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat on the council in 2020.

Gilg did not immediately return a call for comment Thursday.

Gardiner city councilors earn $1,000 a year.

Two seats are open on the Maine School Administrative District 11 board of directors. Incumbents Matthew Marshall and Cullen McGough — who was appointed in January to fill the vacancy created by Jon Umland’s resignation — are running to keep their seats. Diane Potter has also filed papers to run.

Under state law, MSAD 11 school board members are paid $25 per meeting for regular board meetings and $15 per meeting for special board meetings.

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