The attorney representing a local couple trying to open an event center in Owls Head has asked that two members of the town’s planning board be removed for alleged misconduct.
Attorney Kristin Collins alleges that Owls Head Planning Board members Russell Wolfertz, the board’s chair, and Ken Wexler have failed to comply with a Freedom of Access Act request and tried to block the public hearing process for an ordinance amendment sought by her clients that went before voters and was passed this summer.
Collins sent a letter to the Owls Head Selectboard in October asking for the two men to be removed from the board. In the letter, she claims Wexler and Wolfertz have not turned over requested correspondences that are public under Maine’s public access laws and that Wolfertz pushed back on holding a required public hearing.
The Owls Head Selectboard will be discussing the letter at its meeting on Monday. Wexler and Wolfertz have requested that the discussion be held during an open meeting rather than during executive sessions, according to Owls Head Selectboard Chair Gordon Page. The meeting will be held at 3 p.m. at the Owls Head Community Building.
Page said the selectboard felt it would be responsible to hold a meeting to acknowledge the letter and give Wexler and Wolfertz an opportunity to respond.
“It’s a personnel matter and although it’s a public meeting we’re not taking any particular stance at this point,” Page said.
Wolfertz denies having acted unlawfully and said he will respond further to the allegations at Monday’s meeting. Wexler did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.
“I’m not going to intentionally go out and willfully ignore any law and that’s the allegation. There are some technical things that are totally missing. Every good story is ruined by some facts and I’ll bring the facts in,” Wolfertz said.
The issues stem from a proposal by Owls Head residents Christina and Jeff Woodman, who are working to turn their property Ash Point Farm into an event venue.
The couple has been working to get approval from the town to host events on their property for more than a year. They had initially gotten approval from the planning board last year, but the planning board of appeals overturned the decision because they felt it was a zoning amendment that required a town-wide vote.
The Woodmans petitioned to have an ordinance amendment go before voters at the annual town meeting in August where voters approved the amendment . Now that the ordinance has been amended to allow for event centers, the Woodmans need final approval from the planning board to operate.
Prior to the August town meeting, a public hearing needed to be held by the planning board on the proposed amendment. However, Collins alleges that, “Mr. Wolfertz fought at every turn against holding this public hearing and ultimately only conceded after being essentially ordered to do so by the Selectmen,” according to her Oct. 14 letter to the selectboard.
Wolfertz denies that the planning board intentionally delayed holding the public hearing.
Collins also claims that Wexler was behind a letter that was mailed to Owls Head residents in advance of the town meeting “which disparaged the Woodmans’ proposal and contained false and misleading information regarding the effect of the proposed amendment,” the letter states.
Collins said the belief that Wexler was behind the letter was based on information that her clients had heard in town and the fact that Wexler’s wife signed the letter.
In an attempt to determine if Wexler was responsible for the letter, Collins filed a Freedom of Access Act Request on Aug. 2 “which requested correspondence among Planning Board members and between Planning Board members and members of the public regarding the petitioned amendments.”
Collins said that Wexler and Wolfertz have yet to respond to the request, despite Collins getting the Maine attorney general’s office involved in an attempt to get them to comply with the request. Under Maine’s freedom of access laws, correspondences ― like emails ― by public officials are public record and must be furnished when requested.
“Mr. Wolfertz responded that all emails were copied to town staff. However, he later indicated both that he ‘wouldn’t give me anything,’ and also told me about text messages he had exchanged with others that he says he deleted because they were not nice,” Collins said in her letter.
Wolfertz said that any emails pertaining to the request were already in the town’s possession because town staff members were copied on the emails as recipients. To ensure he didn’t miss anything, Wolfertz said he turned his computer over to town staff for them to look through it. Wolfertz claims town staff and a representative from the attorney general’s office told him they were satisfied with the information they received.
A message left with the Owls Head Town Office was not immediately returned Wednesday evening.
Wolfertz allegedly threatened to file a complaint against her with the Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar, according to Collins’ letter.
She said it is ultimately up to the selectboard to decide how to move forward with her complaint, but feels the conduct of Wexler and Wolfertz is not appropriate for members of a town planning board.
Collins said she will request that Wexler and Wolfertz recuse themselves during the planning board’s consideration of her client’s application. If they are involved in the decision, she feels they will not get a fair review.
“I think that a planning board is not supposed to be political and so if members have acted in a way that is obstructionist, political and not helpful, that they probably aren’t’ the most suitable to be on that board, so I think the right decision is to remove them,” Collins said.