A large group of paddlers near the finish line of the St. George River Race in Searsmont. Credit: John Holyoke

SEARSMONT, Maine — Most years, Searsmont residents are busy hosting the annual St. George River Race right about now.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the race is off — but town officials are still paddling rough waters after a longtime town selectman resigned suddenly last week during a town meeting.

“I don’t very often get very upset, but I did that night,” First Selectman Bruce Brierley said Monday. “I blew up, I guess … I tendered my resignation, wrote it that night and turned it in.”

Brierley, 83, was first elected to the town selectboard in 1989 and planned to retire at the end of the year, when his most recent term was complete. But he changed that timeline on Tuesday when a clash over management styles with David Marceau, 64, a selectman who was elected last April, came to a head.

Brierley believed that Marceau didn’t think the office was being run properly, and resigned in protest. But Marceau said that he was trying to update and streamline some aspects of town government — not run off the selectman.

“I don’t want to cause any harm to anybody, least of all Bruce Brierley,” he said.

At the same meeting, former fire chief James Ames, who resigned in January 2019 amid accusations of conflict and bad feelings, was reinstated as chief. Then Tracy Harford, the interim fire chief, resigned, saying that he did not agree with Ames’ reappointment, according to the Republican Journal.

It’s likely that the vacant selectman’s position will be unfilled for awhile, according to Kathy Hoey, Searsmont town clerk. Because of the pandemic, Searsmont’s annual town meeting, which originally was scheduled for this coming Saturday, has been indefinitely postponed. That means Marceau and Selectman Chris Staples will have to carry on by themselves.

“It would be nice to get a new selectman on as quickly as possible, but I don’t foresee that,” she said.

Resident Mickey Sirota said that Brierley’s resignation will leave another void in the town.

“The loss is to the institutional memory, because he won’t be sitting in the office,” he said.

Still, Brierley said that although his decision to resign seemed sudden, what led up to it had been brewing for some time.

“It’s been pretty controversial for a year,” he said. “[Marceau] seems to have caused problems in the office. He didn’t think the office was working the way it should.”

But Marceau said his intention was never to create drama in Searsmont. Each of the three selectmen has an equal amount of responsibility for the town, he said.

“We’ve had discussions about various things, as relates to the town office and the way we conduct our selectmen’s meetings,” he said. “We’ve had some complaints from employees that we’ve tried to resolve.”

In the process of doing that, Marceau saw that the town’s personnel policy had last been updated in 2005. After speaking with the other selectmen, he reached out to the town’s attorney and other nearby town administrators, who said that they update their personnel policy on a yearly basis.

So Searsmont officials got to work making changes to the policy. They found that some people in the office had no job descriptions, including the fire chief and the town clerk, while others had outdated job descriptions, Marceau said.

“I was just trying to understand what people did, how they did it and what procedures were being followed. That’s all,” he said. “Let’s just say that Bruce had difficulty with that. He kept saying, ‘Things have been run fine in this office for a very long time. I don’t understand what the problem is.’ That would be my opinion of what he told me.”

Brierley said that even after resigning, he still has concerns about the town, and about how things would work in the town office going forward. And even though the clash with Marceau had caused him to lose sleep, he said, he still hasn’t been sleeping that well since making the decision to leave.

“It’s done. I’m home. I’ll be fine,” the former first selectman said. “But I keep thinking about how the office is going to operate.”

Hoey, the clerk, said that she and others at the town office will miss Brierley, who she described as laid-back, down-home and genuine.

“He’s just always been there, available and accessible,” she said. “We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but we always respect each other … he was a real stabilizing influence, and had the historical knowledge that isn’t there now.”

For his part, Marceau said that the last months have been difficult, especially the controversy over the fire chief’s position. And with the current threat of COVID-19 hanging over the country, his stress levels have gotten worse.

“I’m trying to help this town, trying to do what I believe is the right thing,” he said. “I am trying my darndest not to drag the town through anything.”