A tiny Maine town’s clerk and second assessor have resigned amid swelling tensions between residents and leadership that have forced a shutdown since mid-July.
The Forks Plantation held an emergency meeting Saturday, during which two of three elected assessors accepted the resignations of Clerk Barbara Norman and Second Assessor Judith Hutchinson.
Their terms expired June 30, but they had continued to serve in their positions. Typically the plantation holds an annual meeting in June to elect new leaders, which a group of residents has demanded be scheduled and assessors have delayed, citing an unfinished 2022 audit.
Residents frustrated with leadership shut down the plantation when on July 17 they voted down an article to spend more than $147,000 in the 90 days ahead of a new budget being approved. On Aug. 30, they voted down nearly all articles on a warrant that asked for authorization to pay bills, process payroll and appoint a new treasurer, keeping the plantation shuttered.
Saturday’s meeting was notable because officials with expired terms finally resigned, an outcome that a residents group formed in the wake of concerns about spending — which last summer caught the state auditor’s attention — has demanded. The group has called for elections before spending because adding new leaders to the mix would help the plantation move forward and handle its finances properly, its spokesperson has said.
The plantation, located in central Somerset County with about 48 residents, also scheduled a town meeting for Sept. 28, though its date was unclear during Saturday’s meeting.
“We’re relieved,” said Charles Hathaway, resident and spokesperson for Citizens for Integrity, Transparency and Accountability, on Monday. “This is a step in the right direction.”
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 tax 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.
Hutchinson’s resignation was effective Aug. 18, according to her resignation letter that First Assessor Sandra Thompson read aloud Saturday. With her term having expired in late June and no town meeting being set, Hutchinson wrote that she sees no benefit in continuing.
Hutchinson’s roles as both second assessor and tax collector, a term that doesn’t expire until June 2024, were a conflict of interest, Hathaway said. Her resignation was “a wise thing to do,” he said.
Norman walked out of the Aug. 30 meeting, though it was unclear whether she had formally resigned, as her letter later confirmed. In the letter, Norman thanked the board of assessors for giving her an opportunity to serve the community.
“Although I was not going to serve another term, I have decided to resign at this time because I will no longer serve a community that has a hateful, malicious and self-serving majority of citizens,” she wrote. “The conduct of these citizens at the last meeting was totally disrespectful to the citizens who want to move forward.”
Thompson and Third Assessor Chris Hewke voted to appoint Leslie Giroux as interim clerk and voter registrar for the upcoming town meeting. She works as Solon’s clerk and tax collector, according to the town’s website.
Citizens for Integrity, Transparency and Accountability hired Adam Lee of the law firm Trafton, Matzen, Belleau & Frenette, who wrote to the plantation’s attorney Sept. 1 that a town meeting is imperative. Because assessors have failed to schedule one, the group is considering calling the town meeting by petition, which is complicated and unwelcome, he said.
The town meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sept. 28, and its warrant includes more than 40 articles related to elections, salaries and various budgetary items.
“I think we have done a great job at least moving toward transparency in town affairs, which is something we never had,” Hathaway said. “Everything was a secret. Now people are engaged and interested. They’re showing up and talking and asking questions.”