The logo for the Town of Southwest Harbor is visible on the municipal building door on May 2, 2022. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Voters in Southwest Harbor on Tuesday elected two newcomers to the town’s select board, an indication that local residents want changes to a board that some feel has become dysfunctional in recent years.

Jim Vallette was the top vote getter with 189 votes, while Natasha Johnson received 174. Out of the five candidates, incumbent Allen Willey received the fewest votes with 52. The other candidates, Michael Sawyer and Michael Magnani, received 53 and 92 votes respectively. Board member Chad Terry did not run for re-election.

Johnson, co-owner of the only recreational marijuana shop in Hancock County, and Vallette, a waste management consultant who has led local efforts to revive the town’s recycling program, have been seen by some as candidates who can bring changes to the select board.

The board has been blamed, at least in part, for a lack of progress on projects such as building a new town garage, rebuilding part of Main Street that runs south of downtown, and applying for a grant to help make improvements to a popular downtown recreational pond property.

Kristin Hutchins, then the chair of the board, cited the board’s decision not to pursue a grant for the Chris Pond project as a factor in her decision to resign when she abruptly left the board in May 2021. Her replacement, Dan Norwood, abruptly resigned two months ago, telling the Mount Desert Islander that was leaving because of the board’s “divisive political atmosphere.” 

In a letter-to-the editor published in the Islander last fall, local resident Blake Cass called the board ‘dysfunctional’ and said it should be more transparent.

“The citizens of Southwest Harbor deserve transparency — as well as a Select Board who treat each other with respect,” Cass wrote.

Vallette said the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly raised the costs of construction materials, which has aggravated the lack of progress on some of the projects, but that the town also has suffered from turnover in the town manager position.

In January 2021, the board fired Town Manager Justin VanDongen by a 3-2 vote. Dana Reed, former town manager in Bar Harbor and Tremont was hired on an interim basis. Michael Patterson, who had prior experience in Colorado and Oregon, was later hired but rescinded his acceptance of the post after news got out that he had a 2008 conviction in Oregon for assaulting his wife.

The the town manager job was filled in December by Marylin Lowell, who had been Southwest Harbor’s town clerk since 2013.

“We’ve been in a holding pattern, it seems,” Vallette said, adding that prior select board members “all left frustrated by it.”

Hutchins, the former select board chair, said last week that divisions on the board prior to VanDongen being fired made it difficult for VanDongen to get things done toward the tail end of his tenure. She said, without getting specific, that the root of the problem are fundamental differences in governing philosophies between board members.

“It just has seemed impossible to get things done, which is very frustrating,” Hutchins said.

Johnson said Monday that she believes the board will be able to make progress going forward, even if there are only four members on the board for the next six months.

The new board members join George Jellison and Carolyn Ball, who each have one more year left on their terms, and a fifth member is expected to be elected in November to fill Dan Norwood’s former seat.

“There needs to be some compromises and creative solutions,” Johnson said.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....