LEWISTON — Saying it was time for a new direction, city councilors on Tuesday ended Jim Bennett's tenure as Lewiston's top official.
The council shocked a room full of constituents and city
staff, voting to buy out the remainder of Bennett's contract. The decision came at the beginning of a busy City Council agenda and after two
"It's just time for a change," Councilor Denis Theriault said. "He's worked hard for the city and he's done some great work, but I think it's time for us to go in a different direction."
Councilors voted 5-2 to buy out Bennett's contract, paying him a
full year's salary and health benefits. Only brothers Tom and Nelson
Peters, councilors in Wards 1 and 2, voted against the motion to end
Neither Tom nor Nelson Peters would comment on the decision. Councilors couldn't say specifically what pushed them to make their decision.
"It just kind of happened," Councilor Robert Reed said. "And it's just time to move in a new direction."
Mayor Larry Gilbert, who does not have a vote on the council, said he supported the majority decision. "I think it's the best decision we could have made at this time."
Bennett disappeared into his office immediately after the vote,
emerging later to leave. He was accompanied by former city councilors
Mark Paradis, Renee Bernier and Normand Rousseau.
Paradis, calling it a sad day for the city, said he planned to take out papers Wednesday morning
to run for elected office.
Councilors pre-empted a
previously scheduled executive session before their regular meeting to
meet with the city attorney to discuss Bennett's contract. They came
out of that session at 7 p.m. to begin their regular meeting, but immediately went back behind closed
doors to continue their conversation.
They came out 20 minutes later and announced their decision.
Bennett came to Lewiston in March 2002, hired to replace Bogdan Vitas. Councilors at the time hired him away from the city of Westbrook.
He was paid $88,500 a year in 2002 and initially given a three-year contract. That contract has been extended by a year each year, until last year. That was the first time councilors voted not to extend Bennett’s contract. His current contract, paying him $110,000 a year, was set to expire in 2011.
Bennett has had a tense relationship with the current council. It came to a head on May 11 when Councilor Theriault accused him of dividing the council. Theriault had attended a city staff meeting to observe. Bennett later told Theriault that he did not have authority to attend staff meetings.
Theriault called for Bennett's ouster at that meeting.
Bennett said Tuesday councilors were perfectly within their rights.
"It is consistent with the contract," Bennett said. He said he
planned to come back to City Hall on Wednesday to clear out his office.
Mike Blais of Webster Street called the council's action "ugly."
"I didn't agree with everything Jim Bennett did, but he was very
professional and very successful," Blais said. "He worked for his city
for eight years, but tonight he walked out with his tail between his
legs because five of you voted. If I treated my employees that way, shame on me. And shame on you."