The Caribou City Council has voted to oust two members from the district hospital board.
Caribou City Councilor Doug Morrell (left) speaks against a motion to terminate two hospital district board members while councilors John Morrill (second from left), Courtney Boma and Jody Smith listen. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican & News

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou city councilors voted 5-2 Monday to oust two Cary Hospital District board members for trying to donate funding on behalf of the medical center to a broadband expansion project in which they are professionally involved.

Councilors learned Tuesday that Tim Todd and Bryan Cullins, two of the three district board members for Cary Medical Center, voted last week on behalf of the hospital to donate $250,000 to the Caribou Utilities District’s proposed broadband project, which aims to build a citywide high-speed, dark-fiber network.

The council’s vote once again brought up debate on how aware the city should be of the hospital’s financial decisions. Though Caribou’s website does not list Cary Medical as a city department, the hospital is located on city-owned property. That has led some councilors to believe administrators and board members need to report to the city.

Councilor Doug Morrell, who cast one of the two no votes, has criticized the hospital in the past for not disclosing financial decisions to the council. In July, he criticized a proposed ordinance for supposedly targeting his request that City Manager Penny Thompson obtain financial information from the hospital.

But on Monday, Morrell argued that the city could not punish the hospital district board for Todd’s and Cullins’ actions, if its bylaws permit them to donate to other community partners. Instead, he called for more scrutiny of the board.

“I know we appoint people [to city boards], but from my understanding, we cannot control what they do and they can make decisions as they deem fit,” Morrell said.

Cary Medical Center has operated on the Van Buren Road since 1978 and maintains an 11-member board of directors and a three-member hospital district board.

In 1973, the Legislature established the Cary hospital district board. Its members are responsible for maintaining the hospital’s buildings and grounds and approving all major renovations and expansions, said Bill Flagg, Cary’s director of community relations and development.

The board of directors oversee management of the medical center, the hospital’s policies and procedures, financial operations, strategic planning and daily operations, Flagg said.

City councilors appoint members to both boards. Thompson serves as a non-voting member of the board of directors.

A third hospital district board member, Doug Plourde, was not present for the Nov. 22 vote on the potential utility district donation.

Todd owns and operates R.L. Todd & Sons, an electrical contracting company, and is one of three vendors who have agreed to assist the utility district after construction of the fiber poles. The utility district’s broadband business plan lists Todd and Cullins as additional community partners under “finance, procurement and community outreach,” and identifies them as hospital district board members.

Todd and Cullins are not members of the utility district’s board of trustees or Caribou’s Business Investment Group, a nonprofit assisting with the broadband project.

Caribou Utilities District General Manager Hugh Kirkpatrick confirmed Tuesday that he had discussed a potential donation from the hospital board with Todd and Cullins prior to the vote. That donation has been stalled because of the council’s vote, Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick did not comment on the City Council’s vote directly, but noted that R.L. Todd is one of three vendors slated to sign a contract with the utility district to share future responsibility for pole maintenance.

“It seems like the council is trying to make this agreement sound exclusive [to Todd’s company] when it isn’t,” Kirkpatrick said.

The utility district is seeking funding from grants and other sources to expand dark-fiber broadband to the most rural regions of Caribou. The five-year project is expected to begin next fall, with each construction phase to cost approximately $1.3 million.

The project has garnered endorsement but not public funds from the council. Councilors have not voted on whether they will formally partner with the utility district or with a similar project proposed by Consolidated Communications or Spectrum.

The latter company has tried to influence the council’s decision by targeting anti-utility district online ads to Caribou residents and lowering the city’s financial commitment. That controversy led councilors to question whether the city should commit tax dollars to the utility district project.

Several city councilors argued Monday that because they appointed Todd and Cullins, they have the authority to end their terms on the basis of their conflict of interest with the broadband project.

“We have the right to remove board members because we appoint and reappoint them,” Deputy City Mayor Courtney Boma said.

Cary Medical CEO Kris Doody, who attended Monday’s council meeting via Zoom, called Todd’s and Cullins’ actions “unfortunate,” but did not indicate if she supported their removal from the hospital board.

“If there are questions about or issues [with the hospital board], let’s talk about them, but let’s be mindful of the fine work that past board members have done for decades,” Doody said.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the role of R.L. Todd & Sons in the Caribou Utility District’s broadband project.