Caribou City Councilor Doug Morrell sits at a council meeting in 2020. The Caribou Superior Court has granted the city's motion to dismiss a lawsuit that alleged Morrell's service on the council violated the city charter.  Credit: Chris Bouchard / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou could become the first municipality in Aroostook County to establish the city manager’s scope of duties through an ordinance.

With long-term employees difficult to find, Caribou City Manager Penny Thompson has taken on tasks that belonged to other staff members, including economic development. A proposed ordinance would require a majority vote before councilors could request anything beyond the established scope of Thompson’s position.

It would be a dramatic step for the council to take in order to prevent individual councilors from adding tasks to the city manager’s already long list of jobs without board approval.

Presque Isle, a similarly sized city 11 miles south of Caribou, has no ordinance guiding council members’ requests to the city manager.

The city charter’s description of duties for the manager does not specify what council requests are considered reasonable given the demands of the job.

Though councilors have made informal requests for city managers to research and report back to them on certain topics, there has never been a policy requiring the council to vote on them.

Councilors supporting the ordinance said they didn’t want to overwhelm Thompson, who already has more roles than many past city managers.

But Councilor Doug Morrell took offense to the ordinance and suggested that councilors wanted to shut down his request that Thompson contact the local hospital board about providing monthly financial updates.

“I have full authority to ask for information,” Morrell said. “You six [councilors] will never control [my council] seat just like I will never control your seats.”

Morrell had expressed concerns before that the nine-member board of directors for Cary Medical Center, the hospital that serves Caribou and surrounding towns, was withholding important financial records from the city.

Morrell argued that since Cary is located on city property, councilors should receive regular updates about the hospital.

“They are a department of the city,” Morrell said. “Their board chair has taken it upon himself to override the request of an elected official.”

Caribou’s website does not list Cary as a city department, but its board is appointed by councilors. Thompson is one of two non-voting members of the board.

The city council’s materials for July 25 included the latest Cary board meeting minutes, which disclosed the hospital’s latest checking account balance but didn’t explain gross patient revenue, net operating revenue, expenses, COVID-19 funding and net income loss.

Efforts to reach Cary Board Chairperson Doug Plourde for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Many councilors disagreed with Morrell and said the ordinance was to ensure that Thompson was not overburdened.

“I don’t see what this has to do with Cary,” said Councilor Lou Willey. “Unless we all agree [to make a request], I don’t think it’s our place to create more work for staff members who are already working hard.”

Prior councilors had discussed creating a city policy like the one proposed in regards to a former city manager, Councilor Joan Theriault said.

“I think the council’s thought [at that time] was that if a single councilor [in the minority vote] wanted to get certain information, they could still request that information themselves,” Theriault said.

Councilor Mark Goughan questioned whether that scenario would lead to more confusion on what information Thompson cannot research, per her job duties.

Even if the majority of councilors vote against making a request of Thompson, those in the minority might still want certain information, Goughan said.

The ordinance idea came up in the city’s charter committee, which includes Willey, Theriault and Mayor Jody Smith, Thompson said.

“It’s not in my power to run a full audit of the hospital. I have to request that information from someone else,” Thompson said. “So maybe ‘scope’ is the wrong word.”

If the ordinance added a policy to the city’s charter, Caribou would have to bring the matter before voters in the November election, Thompson said.

A public hearing for the ordinance will be held during the council’s next regular meeting on Aug. 22.