ROCKPORT — Voting 6-0, the Camden-Rockport School Board amended the charter of an ad hoc committee that oversee the construction of the district’s new middle school at a Dec. 20 meeting. The amendment had been crafted to remove Rockport Select Board member Owen Casas from the committee, and the board voted unanimously in favor of the measure, but not before hearing from a series of citizens urging otherwise. At the same meeting, which was held in the Geoffrey C. Parker meeting room at the Rockport Opera House, the school board also unanimously resolved to issue a $25.2 million bond to finance the construction of a new middle school on Knowlton Street.
That resolution allows the board now to borrow up to $6 million through a bond anticipation note (BAN), which members also approved Dec. 20, agreeing to go with Camden National Bank at a borrowing rate of 2.83 percent.
The school board will not issue the bond until the spring, after the board tends to a fiscal decision of whether to put before voters a referendum to expend $1.1 million in a reserve account on the new middle school project or pass that amount, which has been tucked away in reserves over the past several years, through to the project via the annual school board budget process.
It is a fiscal wrinkle that formed in mid-December when administrators learned from their attorney, William Stockmeyer, of the Portland-based Drummond Woodsum, that in order to spend the reserve money on direct construction costs requires either another referendum, or that $1.1 million can be parceled out through other middle school budget lines; e.g., moveable equipment or grounds improvements.
The school board’s Finance Committee will discuss this matter when it meets Jan. 17.
“Our desire is to do exactly what we told voters we would do, spend the $1.1 we have been saving to offset cost to voters and be as transparent as possible about the finances,” said School Administrative District 28 Finance Director Cathy Murphy, after the Dec. 20 meeting. “Right now, administration's recommendation is to go to voters to approve the $1.1 million, but again, we will discuss options with the Finance Committee and then full board. Once we have approval to spend the $1.1 million we will go to out to bond on the $25.2 million.”
In the meantime, architectural fees and other associated project costs will be paid through the School Administrative District 28 fund balance, and then through the BAN.
Camden National Bank was the only bank to respond to a bid circulation by the district last fall to all Maine banks.
Mary E. Taylor Building
The board was also informed Dec. 20 that it will convene on Jan. 10, at 6 p.m., with Michael Mullins, who had submitted on Nov. 30 a proposal to repurpose the Mary E. Taylor building at the Knowlton Street middle school campus. The location of the MET meeting has yet to be determined, although Superintendent Maria Libby said it would likely be at the Rockport Opera House in the Parker meeting room.
The fate of the MET building has been the source of the current controversy that fueled debate in the Camden-Rockport community both at meetings, and sparring in letters and comments on media coverage, by individuals using their real names or pseudonyms.
It is the same debate that ultimately led to the removal of Casas from the Building Committee.
While the board’s Dec. 20 agenda included regular school business items, the bulk of the meeting was relegated to the Building Committee controversy. It originated shortly before Thanksgiving after School Board Chairman Matt Dailey told Rockport Select Board Chairman Ken McKinley that he wanted Rockport Select Board representative Casas off the ad hoc school district Building Committee.
The Rockport Select Board had appointed Casas as its liaison to the committee, which had formed in September and oversees construction of the new $26 million middle school in Camden, which is where Camden and Rockport grades 5-8 will eventually resettle.
The Camden Select Board there had appointed board member Marc Ratner to be its liaison to the Building Committee. Both Ratner and Casas had served on the earlier iteration of the Building Committee, which was then referred to as the Visioning Committee, and was responsible for helping to get the new middle school concept in a form to take to the voters for approval.
At the Dec. 19 meeting of the Camden Select Board, Marc Ratner stepped down as liaison to the Building Committee and the Camden Select Board appointed Bob Falciani to take Ratner’s place. The next Building Committee meeting is scheduled for Jan. 8.
A month earlier, Dailey told McKinley, in an email, that Rockport could nominate a different Select Board member to serve on the Building Committee.
He told McKinley that he was unhappy with Casas on the board, citing Casas’ knowledge of a Freedom of Access Act action filed last summer by Rockport resident Maggie Timmerman. (Read: SAD 28 chairman tells Rockport Select Board member to step off school Building Committee.)
At its Dec. 7 meeting, the Rockport Select Board agreed not to, just yet, appoint anyone new from its board to serve on the Building Committee. Instead, they encouraged Casas to attend the Dec. 20 School Board meeting, and if possible, and in the words of Select Board member Mark Kelley, “mend fences.”
But there was no mending of fences, despite urging from Geoffrey Parker, a former member of both the school board and the Rockport Select Board, who spoke at the Dec. 20 meeting. Or by Rockport Select Board Chairman Ken McKinley, or Camden Select Board Alison McKellar.
Public reaction to the meeting has been strong, and while there were but approximately 30 citizens attending the meeting, 65 more were watching it unfold as it streamed live on their computers. Since then, the archived video has been viewed another 280 times, making it the second most watched public meeting (just behind a 2016 solid waste meeting) held at the Rockport Opera House since the town first started live-streaming its meetings in June 2015. (The Dec. 20 meeting was filmed and is archived here: https://livestream.com/Rockportmaine/events/7977611/videos/167486111)
It was contentious meeting, exhibiting characteristics of a tribunal, as the school board chairman and some board members called into question the honesty and honor of Casas, while others defended his integrity.
Board members attending the Dec. 20 meeting included Marcia Dietrich and Sarah Bradley Prindiville, representing Rockport, and Elizabeth Noble, Becky Flanagan, Dailey and Vice Chair Lynda Chilton, representing Camden. Board members Pete Orne, of Camden, and Carol Gartley, of Rockport, were not in attendance.
Other citizens, including Helen Shaw, of Rockport; John Titus, of Rockport; and Hartwell Dowling, of Rockport, all spoke before the school board, urging members to retain Casas on the committee.
One Camden citizen, Carl Chadwick, countered that loyalty had been lacking.
After the meeting, Timmerman, who originally filed the FOAA, said she was dismayed by what had transpired Dec. 20. She wrote in an email immediately following the meeting:
“I'm very disappointed that exercising my right as a citizen to request a FOAA has resulted in Owen losing his seat on the middle school building committee. Owen was aware of my concern that I had voted for the school bond under the false premise that the MET fate was not part of the vote. He was aware I was submitting a FOAA but he was not actively involved in the FOAA process. I'm confused why it should be his responsibility to notify the building committee about the FOAA - why wasn’t it the responsibility of the superintendent to notify the Building Committee?“I really don't want to keep this back and forth going but I can't stand by and watch this injustice. Owen is an honorable man and a valuable member of any committee he participates on. The school board taking action to remove anyone that they feel isn't compliant is a slippery slope.”
The Dec. 20 school board meeting was held at the Rockport Opera House because of its available live-streaming technology. After first tending to other agenda items, including a discussion about hiring a school resource officer for the K-12 schools, the board then turned its attention to the committee charter amendment that removed Casas from the ad hoc committee.
“Owen Casas had not lived up to the standards that I hoped we had,” said Dailey, at the outset of the discussion.
Dailey said the submission of a FOAA was not the issue.
“It is fine,” he said. “We have no expectations that our communications are not going to be inspected by the public.”
He said the FOAA arrived just as school was starting for the new year.
Collecting communications, and ensuring no student or staff information is in them, takes time, he said.
“It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort,” he said. “We are trying to build a new school, trying to run the schools. This came in right the first week of school happening and we took time we could have been using to create a better educational environment and hire people, and we had to devote it to collect up messages about a particular thing that had been been passed. It was difficult to feel good about what that process was costing us.”
Then, he said, three months after administrators had provided the emails to Timmerman, “the person took those things, distilled them down, and presented them to the Camden and Rockport select boards. They alleged bad behavior on the part of the board, or suspect behavior. It’s fine. People can air their grievances. It’s right there in the Bill of Rights.”
Referencing the contents of the FOAA response, Dailey said: “I don’t think we had anything to feel bad about. It’s out there. People were embarrassed by some of the things that were in there. But it was a frank kind of business about how the board does stuff.”
A week later there was an article published that Casas had participated in the FOAA, said Dailey, adding that Casas had not indicated to the board about how he felt for three months. The board had no idea he felt this way, Dailey said.
“He was very well informed about the proposal put before voters in June and he should have either shared his feelings or taken a gentler path into getting the information or helping his constituents get the information they needed,” said Dailey, “By not disclosing his involvement he took a process that supposed to include openness and transparency and instead shielded himself from whatever scrutiny that would have involved.”
If he had disclosed his involvement, it would have made a process that was difficult a lot more out in the open for everybody, said Dailey.
“Everyone serving on this board is honest and forthright,” Dailey said, adding that Casas had not done the right thing, and accused the board of bad faith.
“To have somebody who has not done the right thing, who has accused us in some ways of bad faith is inappropriate,” he said. “I think it is in the best interest of Owen and the best interest of the board if he does not serve on the committee any longer.”
Casas then approached the podium and read a prepared statement. He said:
“First, I would like to thank everyone who showed up tonight or tuned in online. I appreciate you taking an active role in our community discussions. I would also like to thank all of you on the School Board for your dedication to public service. As I serve in a similar capacity, I know the work is hard and the decisions are tough.
“Sometimes you are faced with decisions that could be described as “no win situations” while other times a range of good options are offered and deciding on which of the good options is the best for the community is equally difficult.
“People often times refer to these local positions as thankless jobs and even though that can sometimes be true, I believe the general public recognizes the hard work you all put in and appreciate it.
“As it relates to the decision you all have to make tonight, my sitting on the CRMS Building Committee, I wouldn’t describe it as either a no-win or a win-win situation. This situation is somewhat unique and how it gets handled will set precedent for future school board/ committee interactions.
“As I’m sure you are all aware I was, and currently am, involved in an effort to understand, evaluate and learn from decisions that were made by some of those closest to the passing of the June bond to construct the new middle school.
“These concerns primarily apply to the final disposition of the Mary E. Taylor Building and the information that was provided to the public prior to the June vote.
“Prior to the vote, and yes later in the process than is desirable, many concerned citizens, myself included, tried to get a handle on what a “yes” vote meant for the MET.
“After evaluating the situation it appeared that a yes vote meant that the entire middle school complex, including the MET, would be demolished. This turned out to be an accurate assessment.
“Understandably, some of those closest to the bond campaign, individuals who had put in countless hours over many months and years, were not inclined to see the vote fail because of this last minute rally to save an old building.
“Again, the level of frustration after so much work is understandable, however the way the MET issue was managed in the final months was not.”
At that point in Casas’s delivery, Chairman Dailey interrupted and said: “Hold on. We don’t need to rehash the entire....”
Casas asked, “Can I get to my next line?”
He then continued, to the amusement of the audience, with his statement, saying:
“I will not rehash out the details on who said what about what, but will simply say that, in my opinion, the means used to reach the desired ends of bond passage were not fitting with the standards I believe are appropriate for doing the public’s work.
“Switching back to the decision you have to make tonight, I want to lay out my thoughts on my conduct (why I did what I did) and concerns (what this decision means for the future).
“Yes I was aware of the FOAA request. Maggie Timmerman and I had discussed the middle school bond at length and shared similar concerns about the conflicting statements made before and after bond passage.
“When asked about available options to understand this discrepancy, I suggested a FOAA and that suggestion was acted upon. During the time that the FOAA information was being processed, I was informed of progress and findings and I made suggestions and minor edits.
“So why did I choose not to tell the Building Committee of this?
“The Building Committee was charged with a specific role of overseeing the building of the new middle school. I believe the Committee charter is in your packets so you can verify this. I did not, and still do not, understand how my informing the Committee of this knowledge was appropriate, in relation to the charge.
“In my opinion, using Committee time to air information unrelated to the charge would not have added anything valuable to our ability to complete our tasks. To that end, I hope that some of you have talked with Building Committee members about or have personally observed my time on the Building Committee. I think that any observer could honestly say that my knowledge of the FOAA and contents therein did not affect my conduct on the Committee at all.
“Sure, I ask a lot of questions about the project and sometimes answering them is difficult but I think this is beneficial to the process. Yes, I can and do throw out ideas unpopular with the group but they are usually based on comments I hear from the public.
“Taken as a whole, I’d like to think that I am a good committee member who has used his knowledge, experience and network to move the building project forward in a positive way.
“I also want to bring up my concerns about the precedent removing me from the Committee sets for future committee members. As I understand it, the Chair has called for my removal not because I was associated with the FOAA but because I did not disclose this information to the Building Committee. The Chair recently said that my actions ‘violated the board’s expectation of openness and honesty.’
“If one was to agree with my conclusion that activity related with the FOAA was not related to the charge or discussions of the Building Committee, then how are committee members able to determine what needs to be related to their respective committee? Does this apply to just committee related activities or does this apply to any involvement in any activity associated the school? Or is it broader than that?
“Does it apply only when one is concerned or in all instances? Should a committee member who is unhappy that it is taco Tuesday instead of taco Thursday voice this concern at a building meeting or does it only rise to the level of disclosure when they start collecting petition signatures to change an aspect…. of the ridiculous example I just used here?
“Along this line, is this expectation known to all committee members? Having served now on two separate School Board committees, I do not remember ever being told that I was expected to disclose information about activities outside of the committee. The expectations are laid out in the charter and the only mention of “openness” is about the meetings and information related to the project being open to the public so they can be informed about the process and progress.
“You each individually have a decision to make. You are individual members I would ask you to briefly reflect on what I have said and the precedent removing me from this committee sets for everyone who volunteers their time on school projects.”
Dailey then confronted Casas.
“You sat in a room with a bunch of people on that committee who essentially put them under a microscope,” he said. “You put a lot of them in a position with the request that made it difficult for them to talk to other people. You did not give them the chance to conceal their identity. You think that is honest?”
Casas responded: “I’m under a microscope a lot of the time.”
Dailey interjected: “Do you think it’s honest that you put them under a microscope? They’re not you. They’re people volunteering.”
Casas said: “They’re in a very similar situation to me. I’m confused. Are you talking about board members or folks who were not board members?”
“The members on that committee,” said Dailey. “Do you think it was fair to them. You concealed your role in the FOAA, but when it came time to release things, they had no choice. Do you think that was honorable? Do you think that was honest?”
Casas responded: “I think it was an effort to understand how this process had gone and when you engage me in my email account or you in your school account, there’s typically a footer at the end of it that says all of this information is accessible by Freedom of Access.”
Dailey then asked Casas: “Owen, do you think what you did was honest? Do you think keeping a secret was honest?”
“I don’t have any problems with how I conducted myself during that time. It was not my FOAA. It was someone else’s. I was associated with it. And the work I did with the committee was what I thought was in keeping with what you expected of the committee. I don’t have any issues with my honesty as it relates to this. If it had come up at a Building Committee meeting and it was a topic we engaged on, more than likely I would have disclosed that. But I didn’t feel any need to disclose that at a meeting that had nothing to do with the FOAA.”
Board member Elizabeth Noble then said the majority of people on the committee had emails that were produced, regardless of whether they were a public figure or a community member.
“So, I think that sort of does give you a duty to those people,” she said.
Casas responded that he was not evaluating the FOAA during that time.
Marcia Dietrich then raised the point that last fall Casas questioned whether the superintendent should be the spokesperson for the Building Committee.
She wondered whether he would be a team player, after he raised the question about who would be the spokesperson for the committee.
Maria (Libby) speaks on behalf of the committee, said Dietrich, adding that the Superintendent speaks for all of the committees.
Casas said he raised a question last fall, did not see interest on the part of anyone else, so he dropped it.
Casas then clarified his position as a supporter of the new middle school project.
“I don’t believe the entirety of the bond process was flawed,” he said. “I believe there was a portion of it that was not in fitting with the conduct I would like to see.”
He said he has worked hard to support the new school project and cited his work, which included sourcing material for the new playground, working with Keith Rose, facilities director, about the possibility of using wastewater from the treatment plant as heat for the new school, making recommendations for subcommittee members.
“I definitely don’t feel I have not gone along with this,” he said. “I voted in favor of the middle school bond.... I am at a little bit of a loss of how I have not been a good member moving the process forward.”
Community members speak up
As Casas sat down, other citizens moved to the podium with their opinions.
Hartwell Dowling, of Rockport, said he had been a government employee, and as such, always operated with the understanding this his communications could be subjected to a FOAA or FOIA.
“That’s simply the price of working in an open society,” he said.
He said he was getting the impression that a private citizen’s request for information, “seems unduly disconcerting to you.”
Dowling said Casas was a man of integrity, and a “very thoughtful person.”
Helen Shaw, of Rockport, who sits on the town’s budget committee, the joint Camden-Rockport pathways committee and cemetery committee, said she was required to attend a Freedom of Information training session. She said that anything that comes to the board is public.
Dailey interjected: “Anybody who wants to come to sit down beside me and read my emails can. It is not about the request. It is about your failure to reveal your role in it.”
Shaw responded that a FOAA is not a secret, and who better to ask for assistance about it than someone in the Legislature, as Casas is.
Dailey then reiterated that Casas’ role in knowing about the FOAA essentially accused the board of bad faith and concealed his own role in that.
“I don't see any problem in it,” said Shaw.
Geoffrey Parker, a former Camden-Rockport School Board member and former Rockport Select Board member, suggested to the board that when tensions rise between personalities, it is advisable to appoint the vice chairman to lead the meeting, just for the proceedings.
“It will make you feel better in the morning,” he said.
Parker then read his own prepared statement to the school board. He said he thought the issue was “personality and process.”
“None of us are the easiest people to get along with and we each have to go out of our way to build on our strengths and not on our weaknesses,” he said. “In the case, for the sake of the community, I would suggest we look at the big picture and put attributions of motive aside, and we try and mend the fences. That’s the personality side.”
Then he addressed what he called “the process side.”
”Living as we do in what is left of these United States of America, it is important to remember that we strive to be an open democratic society, one that flourishes in the sunshine. To use the Freedom of Information Act should not brand someone, anyone, as a pain in the ass traitor, but rather it should be recognized for what it is, an insufficient relationship with the available information. If your constituents felt that they were aware of the whole story, then they would have no need to invoke the FOAA option.”
Parker commended the school board “for doing a huge amount of work” and has a huge amount of work before it with the middle school project.
But he urged the board to use every tool at its disposal to, “conduct yourselves in a professional, open, and dare I say, transparent, manner.”
Others, including John Titus, of Rockport, endorsed Casas’ character and knowledge of the construction business, “Owen is very outspoken and questioning. He asks a lot of questions, and plays devil’s advocate.”
“I have great respect for him,” said Titus.
He said he thought was happened was “personality.”
Dailey then interjected: “I don’t know him.”
Titus continued: “In a group of people, sometimes people have stronger personalities, and sometimes those people clash. I think you’re one of those people [directing his words to Dailey], and I know Owen is one of those people. I can see where you would disagreements and I can see where you might not like each other. But that doesn’t matter. You guys are supposed to be building a school. I think it will be sad if Owen is not included in that process because I think he is very valuable.”
Dailey said, “We don’t know each other well enough for this to be personal.”
Rockport Select Board Chairman Ken McKinley then stood at the podium, and thanked the board members for their service to the community.
He discussed the timeline of revocation of the Casas position on the Building Committee, and said the ball was in the school board’s court “to allow this process to move forward without prejudging....”
“The FOAA is the obvious reason for the attempted removal,” he said. “I don’t really want to talk about it in any great detail. State law does give citizens the right to make FOAA requests. Those rights have to be respected. You don’t have to be happy about it. Clearly, some of you are not.”
Dailey interjected, “the FOAA itself is not the issue. We understand that. We complied with that. It is not the issue.”
“OK,” said McKinley. “I am not going to get into any great details about it. If the FOAA is not the issue, I move into my next point, which is that the board needs to separate that issue from the issue of the building committee. You need to ask yourselves, will the building committee be better off without Owen on it. Or will it be worse off? Has his work on the committee, and his contribution to the committee, been valuable? Do you want to continue with that working contribution?”
He urged the board members to separate the two issues.
“Owen is the only member on the Rockport Select Board who has children that will attend the middle school,” he said. “The rest of us are all a little bit older. In my opinion, and I don’t speak for the Select Board, is that Owen’s service on the building committee could continue to be valuable if we can get past this other issues.”
Camden Select Board member Alison McKellar followed McKinley, and she said that while serving her initial months on the Camden board, the town likewise received a separate FOAA request pertaining to a different municipal issue, and from a town committee member.
“When I learned of it, I was interested,” she said. “It was somebody I knew. And the person hadn’t told me about it, regarding an issue I had intimately been involved in. But, when it came in, I had to send off every email that pertained to that issue, and from private citizens.”
She read the qualifying statement at the bottom of all emails from town officials that alert the public that those emails are part of the public record.
“It’s not just about school board, or select board, and anybody on the building committee should have that understanding,” she said. “It’s the public who writes to you.”
At that point, Dailey interjected: “Alison, if the person making the FOAA request misrepresented themselves, how would you feel about that? Do you think that’s honest?”
McKellar responded: “If Maggie Timmerman were a made-up person that didn’t actually exist, then yes, that would be concerning.”
Dailey reiterated his points that Casas knew about the FOAA and did not let other people on the building committee know about it.
“He needed to disclose that he was part of the FOAA, so that it was clear of everybody’s motivations,” said Dailey.
Camden resident Carl Chadwick said he attended a meeting prior to the June vote on the middle school and walked away with no misunderstanding that MET could potentially be demolished.
“I sure hope it doesn’t go,” he said. “I think it would be great to save it. I’m not sure where the confusion was. I coached youth football for a number of years, and will draw an analogy. I watched a lot of other teams play. I learned information about that team. I shared that information with my coaches in my team. And that was public information. There’s no doubting that people have a right to request information. But when you’re playing on a team, show some loyalty. Share the information. That was not done in this case, and that concerns me moving forward for somebody who is going to serve on a building committee or on a board, in my son’s school system.”
Josh Gerritsen, a Lincolnville selectman, raised his hand to speak.
“Are you a citizen of Camden or Rockport?” Asked Dailey.
“I am a citizen of Lincolnville, is that good enough to speak?” said Gerritsen.
“No,” said Dailey, as did Lynda Chilton, vice chairwoman. “Not in this case.”
Vice Chair Chilton led off the board discussion after the public comment period ended, and she disputed that the matter was based on personality conflicts.
“It’s not an issue of what a great guy Matt is, or what a great guy Owen is,” she said. “It’s about this particular instance. It’s not about whether we got a FOAA request. Obviously, that’s OK. Everybody has the right to do that. It’s about working at cross-purposes. It’s about trust. it’s about seemingly subversion. I just can’t imagine being involved on a committee with a bunch of people and then in your heart of hearts not believing that they are not doing a good job, that something has to be investigated.”
She said that they, the board members, were “on a board and once decisions are made, whether it’s blue or green, we support it. That’s the deal. I support Matt 100 percent, and I support the rest of you all 100 percent. I do think that in this circumstance, it’s an issue of bad faith.”
Board member Becky Flanagan said: “I think this situation has devolved to a point where the parties, at least for now, are unable to work together to support the community and I think possibly could hinder progress. Maybe at some point in the future this could change. But I think at this point it is not a good idea.”
Casas then asked to speak again.
Chilton told him that he was messing up the process because the board was deliberating.
Casas said: “Just for clarification, because I’ve heard a number of times, that I....”
That’s when Dailey said: “Sit down. Just go sit down.”
Casas continued that the FOAA was for the school board and the superintendent, “not for the committee that I sit on.”
“Go sit down,” said Dailey. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said Casas.
Dietrich then moved to accept the changes to the charter governing the building committee, which left the Rockport Select Board liaison position vacant, and named the superintendent as the spokesperson for the committee.
The vote was taken and board member Sarah Bradley Prindiville asked to abstain.
“You can’t abstain,” said Superintendent Libby.
The vote was retaken and all six board members raised their hands to change the charter.
Pen Bay Pilot Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org