OGUNQUIT, Maine — An overwhelming majority of voters who took part in last month’s special election to fill a short-term vacancy on the town Select Board picked the one and only candidate on the ballot.
Now the outcome of that uncontested race has been called into question because so few votes were cast.
A group of townspeople argued Tuesday that both the special election and subsequent actions by the Select Board must be set aside.
“We apologize for not being able to send this information sooner, but we have only recently discovered this issue and ensuing ramifications for the Town,” the group wrote in a memo to the Select Board.
Barbara Ferraro sent a copy of the memo to the York County Coast Star in an email signed by Ferraro, Peter Kahn, Patricia Hussey, Patience Prescott-Sundaresan and unnamed “other concerned citizens.”
Under the town charter, a quorum for a special election is defined as 25% of the number of eligible votes cast in the town at the most recent gubernatorial election. It appears the town did not reach that minimum threshold with its special election on March 30, 2021.
Since there were 857 votes cast in Ogunquit in the 2018 gubernatorial election, there would need to be at least 215 votes cast in last month’s special election for it to meet the quorum requirement, according to the group’s memo.
But there were just 113 votes cast last month, 100 of them for Bob Whitelaw, who was sworn in this month to serve on the Select Board until June.
The need for a special election arose because John Daley resigned from the Select Board with more than 70 days left in his term. Daley had been arrested in January for allegedly driving drunk then stealing his own impounded vehicle.
Regardless of whether Whitelaw’s victory in last month’s special election is tossed out due to low voter turnout, it won’t be long before his name is on the ballot again. He is one of the two candidates seeking two available Select Board seats in the June 8 annual town meeting vote. The other is Scott Vogel.
On the ballot: Ogunquit budget race contested
Because a quorum was not met on March 30, the election results and actions taken by the Select Board since then must be invalidated, the memo argues.
“The Special Town Meeting did not duly elect a Select Board member, since the meeting and election failed to meet the requisite quorum and therefore was invalid,” the memo states. “Business conducted by the Select Board and votes taken thereafter are not legitimate.”
Ferraro did not immediately respond Tuesday night to a question about which specific Select Board actions she and the memo signers hope to see invalidated.
‘Legal matter’ prompts ‘last minute’ change
The Select Board had already been scheduled to meet Tuesday evening, but the plans for the meeting were changed in light of an unspecified development.
“You may or may not know that our agenda has been changed at the last minute today,” Select Board Chair Heath Ouellette said at the beginning of the brief public meeting. “This afternoon we received some information regarding a legal matter, and the town manager and I made a decision to adjust the agenda.”
The board members present — Ouellette, Rick Dolliver and Bob Winn — then voted to go into a nonpublic executive session, as permitted by state law, to meet with the town attorney “to discuss the Select Board’s duties and responsibilities.” Whitelaw and member Lindsey Perry were absent.
The board was joined by Town Attorney Mary Costigan, Town Manager Pat Finnigan and Town Clerk Chris Murphy.
When the members emerged from executive session about 30 minutes later, Ouellette said the board had no further business to be conducted during the meeting. When reached later Tuesday night, he declined to comment.
The memo from the concerned townspeople says this isn’t the first time the town has faced an invalid special town meeting. Ogunquit dealt with a similar problem in 2010, when a vote was declared invalid for lack of a quorum.
Murphy had served as moderator during that 2010 vote, according to the memo, which includes documentation of the 2010 outcome. The memo argues Murphy should have known the quorum rules and communicated them to the Select Board as they related to the 2021 vote.
Murphy did not respond Tuesday evening to a request for comment.
In motion: Town manager transition
The uncertainty over last month’s vote comes as the Select Board oversees preparation for a key leadership transition.
Finnigan announced in March that she intends to retire this summer. Finnigan’s announcement came after months of employment discussions, and two members of the Select Board described the final terms of her employment agreement as a “compromise.”
Ouellette said this week that the terms of the agreement reached with Finnigan would include six months of severance pay after she passes the baton to her successor.
The person who is expected to take the reins, at least temporarily, is Matthew Buttrick, who is currently employed as a lieutenant with the Ogunquit Police Department. The Select Board voted 4-0 last week to name Buttrick as interim town manager. (Whitelaw participated in that vote, but even if his vote were deducted from the tally, the outcome of the vote would not change.)
Ouellette then announced Friday that the plan is for Buttrick to step into his duties as interim town manager on Saturday, May 15, at 4 p.m.
“Final details are being worked out regarding his transition; however, he has already begun working with Pat and staff,” Ouellette wrote in a note to the public.
Buttrick is well-known in town through his nearly 20 years of service with the police department, Ouellette wrote.
“He has a wealth of knowledge about our community and is well respected by those who work with him,” Ouellette added. “This past year, he also worked closely with our COVID Taskforce and others to keep our community safe and well. While Matt will no doubt have a steep learning curve, he is ready to assist our Town during this transition.”
Who will report to whom?
It remains unclear exactly how Buttrick’s role as interim town manager will affect his role as a police lieutenant. His current boss, Ogunquit Police Chief Patricia Arnaudin, is the head of a town department.
Arnaudin didn’t respond last week to an email with questions about whether Buttrick would need to step out of his policing role to step into the interim town manager role and whether she would be reporting to him in his interim capacity.
When asked last week whether he intends to maintain his employment with the police department while serving as interim town manager, Buttrick said he didn’t yet have the logistical details finalized.
Ouellette, too, said in an interview this week that the details about the extent of Buttrick’s potential involvement with the police department while he serves as interim town manager are still being worked out.
“It is my hope that he doesn’t have responsibilities directly tied to the police department during this time because I think there’s enough work we need from him as interim town manager,” Ouellette said.
In the coming weeks and months, the Select Board will also move forward, Ouellette said, with its plans to establish a permanent Town Manager Search Committee.
“As outlined in our Town Charter, this committee assists the Select Board in finding the best candidate for our community,” he wrote in his note to the public. “We plan to appoint 5-7 members to this committee soon and details regarding the process will be forthcoming.”