A group of residents fed up with leadership in its plantation that has been shuttered since mid-July is demanding an election to replace officials whose terms expired in late June.
An annual meeting and elections in The Forks Plantation are typically held in June, but three elected assessors have delayed it twice this summer. Instead, they have scheduled special meetings where they discuss the municipality’s dysfunction and ask residents to approve various expenditures that would reopen the municipality.
This led to the initial shutdown after residents on July 17 voted down an article to spend more than $147,000 in the 90 days that followed, ahead of a new budget being approved. Last week, they voted down nearly all articles on a warrant that asked for authorization to pay bills, process payroll and appoint a new treasurer, among other items.
This leaves The Forks shuttered, meaning the plantation cannot handle expenses and offer basic services such as motor vehicle registration. It also cannot disburse a $45,200 grant from the state to Lake Moxie ATV Riders and a $6,000 Central Maine Community College scholarship.
And so the plantation of about 48 people in central Somerset County remains in limbo. Distrust has grown between residents and the assessors since an independent auditor called out leaders in July 2022 for not following proper procedures and mishandling taxpayer money in 2021. He stopped short of saying leaders were committing fraud but described several unusual practices.
The most questionable action was by the second assessor, who is also the tax collector, who issued a check to herself without board approval, then shortly thereafter paid her back taxes that were a similar amount, according to Keel J. Hood, a certified public accountant.
A resident group formed in the wake of those concerns has demanded elections before spending — or else it will work to keep the municipality shut down.
“What is going on here is a blatant attempt to subvert the democratic process,” said Charles Hathaway, resident and spokesperson for Citizens for Integrity, Transparency and Accountability. “There is no legal or rational reason to not hold elections except their fear of new people being elected.”
The group, which goes by CITA, has grown from eight to 14 members in the last month or so and recently hired a lawyer to consult with, Hathaway said. Some of its members are willing to step up to fill expired positions, but they can’t without an election at the town meeting, he said.
Second Assessor Judith Hutchinson’s term expired June 30. She is also the tax collector. The terms of Clerk Barbara Norman and Treasurer Angela Moen also expired.
The plantation has not held its town meeting yet because the 2022 audit isn’t finished, First Assessor Sandra Thompson told residents at last week’s meeting. She was the only assessor in attendance. The Forks hired RHR Smith to complete the audit.
The status of the audit remains unclear, but auditor Ron Smith said earlier this summer it contains many of the same problems as the previous year’s audit and a review dated June 26.
The lawyer hired by the resident group, Adam Lee of Auburn-based law firm Trafton, Matzen, Belleau & Frenette, wrote to the plantation’s attorney, Timothy Woodcock of Eaton Peabody in Bangor, that it is imperative that a town meeting and elections be held as soon as it is practical.
“There’s no reason an audit is a pre-condition to a town meeting,” Lee said in his letter, dated Sept. 1. “There are individuals and organizations awaiting payment from the plantation, and it’s the failure to schedule and hold a town meeting that is causing that.”
Because of “the failure of present government to function and the inexplicable and unreasonable failure of the assessors,” residents involved with CITA are considering calling the town meeting by petition, Lee said.
Taking such action is complicated and unwelcome, but they see few other options to move the plantation forward, he said.
“We remain resolute in our quest for elections before spending,” Hathaway said. “We simply do not trust the current group of officials with our money.”
When The Forks’ town meeting will be held is “still to be determined,” Thompson told residents last week. She had no comment when reached by phone Tuesday.