A judge has dismissed an appeal of a decision by Ellsworth officials to lease a High Street building for a new police station that alleged that the city failed to give proper public notice about the proposal before the City Council voted on it.
On Oct. 17, 2022, the Ellsworth City Council voted 5-2 to sign a 20-year lease with Gurney Investment Properties for a 8,400-square-foot building on the corner of High Street and Buttermilk Road. Councilors Steve O’Halloran and Casey Hanson were opposed.
O’Halloran and a group of local commercial property owners then filed the appeal last fall in Hancock County Superior Court, after the city signed a lease with the company.
With the vote, the council approved a plan to spend roughly $870,000 to renovate and furnish the former hardware store to suit the police department’s needs. The rent on the building will start at $113,400 per year with a lease period of 20 years, with a 3 percent increase in rent each year. Over the 20-year term of the lease, annual rent would increase to $198,848 per year, resulting in an overall cumulative payment of $3,047,104 to the building’s owner by 2042.
O’Halloran and the property owners argued in court documents that the city should have publicly issued a request for proposals so that other landlords could have made offers to the city, they argued in court documents.
No details about the city’s plans to lease the building were publicly released until Oct. 14, 2022, three days before the council voted on the matter.
Justice Bruce Mallonee decided that O’Halloran and the landlords did not have standing to file the appeal, however. Mallonee dismissed their complaint on Friday.
“None of the petitioning property owners have come forward with evidence that their property might actually be suitable for use as the city’s police department,” the judge wrote in his decision. “While the city’s decision may have affected the petitioning property owners in some abstract way, merely being affected by governmental action in an abstract hypothetical sense is not sufficient to confer standing.”
Mallonee also rejected O’Halloran’s argument that, as a sitting city councilor, the Oct. 17 vote somehow harmed his ability to faithfully discharge his duties as an elected official.
“None of Maine’s courts have yet determined whether an elected member of a legislative body has standing to challenge an action of that body by virtue of simply being a member of that body with a duty to fulfill his or her responsibilities of office,” the judge wrote.
At the time that the proposed lease was presented to the city council for approval, City Manager Glenn Moshier, who also serves as the city’s police chief, said that the current police station at City Hall was overly crowded and that a decision needed to be made soon. The current station has no available storage, officers occasionally have to process and test seized drugs in its cramped kitchen space and there is little privacy for conducting interviews on sensitive topics, Moshiers and others with the department said.
The department has scouted various sites over the years, in conjunction with considering possible new locations for the city’s fire department, but have not found other viable options, police officials said. In 2015 the city considered constructing a new public safety building for both its police and fire departments, but balked at the projected $20 million price tag.
O’Halloran and other plaintiffs had sought a temporary restraining order to prevent work from being done to renovate the property while their complaint was pending in court, but Mallonee rejected that motion in February.
Renovation work on the building is expected to be completed this summer, city officials have said.
The city’s attorney, Roger Huber, did not return a message seeking comment on Tuesday.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Brett Baber, declined to comment late Tuesday afternoon, saying he had not yet seen the decision.