Sorrento residents mill about inside and outside the town's community building on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, after the Sorrento Select Board voted 2-0 to suspend Town Manager Kathi Moore after she hired an employment lawyer to represent her against the town and then asked the board to pay her legal bills. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

A small town off the beaten path along Route 1 in eastern Hancock County might be on the verge of having its highest attendance ever for an annual town meeting.

Political turmoil in Sorrento has built for months and reached a boiling point in August when the town’s two Select Board members, Rob Wilpan and Diana Gazis, voted to fire Kathi Moore as town clerk. Another local official who angered residents by voting to leave LGBTQ+ books on the school library shelves has opened up a contested school board race.

With local elections and the town meeting coming up on Sept. 30, every race is contested and voters are being asked to approve a local recall ordinance that would allow them to remove elected officials from office even if that official has not been convicted of a crime.

On Thursday, there was a candidates’ forum for the first time in recent memory, with all six candidates in three contested races taking questions from more than 60 people crowded into the community building next to the town office. With fewer than 300 residents and a significant summer population, Sorrento government is attracting more attention than it has in decades.

“It’s about time,” Judith High, a former town employee, said Friday. “People need to be aware of what’s going on.”

Turmoil over Moore’s tenure and subsequent firing has galvanized local residents, said Dan Bierman, a former selectman. He served on the board for about 15 years, and he can’t remember there ever being a local candidates’ night prior to Thursday.

“I’m glad to see citizens in this town going to these meetings,” Bierman said. “I don’t have an ax to grind with anybody, but we need a good shake-up.”

During roughly two years as town clerk, Moore became a polarizing figure in Sorrento. Last winter, she began looking into how a fire department credit card was being used. Those efforts led to a now-former fire department member being charged with theft for using the card to fuel up his personal vehicle.

Moore supporters gave her credit for organizing a town office that had fallen into disarray, in part because of the COVID pandemic and because her predecessor had fallen ill. But she also had detractors who criticized her bookkeeping skills and her attempts to get Sorrento to pay her personal legal bills.

The finger-pointing took a weird turn in April when the town received a hoax letter signed with a name no one recognized alleging that then-Selectman Jon Mickel had embezzled money from a previous employer and that he and Moore should not be trusted to have oversight of town funds. 

Mickel, an ally of Moore, resigned over the letter, saying the accusations were false and that Sorrento should have done more to find out who sent it. He is now running for fire chief and road commissioner against Joey Clark, who has held both positions for years. Running for Mickel’s former seat on the Select Board are former Select Board member Hilly Welch Crary and newcomer Stephanie Bullock.

There have been other issues beyond the fallout over Moore’s tenure and firing as town clerk.

Janet Wilpan, wife of longtime Select Board chair Rob Wilpan, is not running for reelection to the school board. She came under fire this past winter for her support of keeping controversial books about gender identity and sexuality in the library at Charles M. Sumner school, but says she had decided to stay on the board only long enough to see the Sumner reconstruction project completed. Running to replace her on the school board are Newbold “Terry” Noyes” and Gregory Bullock, Stephanie Bullock’s husband. 

Residents upset by the Regional School Unit 24 board’s decision to keep the controversial books in the school tried to have Janet Wilpan removed, but were advised by the town’s attorney that she could not be unless the town adopts a recall ordinance that allows for the removal of a town official who is not convicted of a crime, according to the Ellsworth American

As a result, voters will decide whether Sorrento should adopt a proposed recall ordinance that was placed on the town meeting warrant by citizen petition. Rob Wilpan and Gazis have raised questions about the petitioners’ wording of the proposal and have declined to endorse it.

Candidate statements by all six people running for office can be found on the town’s Facebook page. Polls in the municipal election will be open at the town’s community building from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday, with the in-attendance portion of the meeting scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. at the same location on the same day.

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....