Following the money

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POLAND – The public’s money, like a precocious pre-schooler, needs constant watching. Turn away and you risk tragedy.

“Let’s think ‘evil’ for a minute,” said Dana Lee, who began work last week as Poland’s town manager.

Imagine trying to steal the town’s money, he said. Find the holes in the policies and procedures, the places where the town’s attention is elsewhere. Then, make a rule to watch the money.

“I’m instituting those every hour of every day, so far,” he said.

Not that Lee, Mechanic Falls’ town manager for 16 years, minds the fuss. “I am happiest when I have a giant to-do list,” he said.

He ought to be very happy.

On July 1, Lee succeeded Richard Chick, the longest-tenured town manager in Maine. Chick was widely respected, having served Poland since 1974.

However, he was sick the past two years. And while he was away, controversies erupted over the town’s finances.

Last year, an auditor discovered a $2.7 million shortfall in Poland’s books. Audits took aim at the town’s oversight of tax money.

No one took the money. Rather, too little was collected in taxes, and payments owed to Poland Spring Water Co. were not made.

With Chick often too sick to work, selectmen took a greater role in the day-to-day management of the town. Traditional roles between town staff and elected leaders blurred. Some fought.

To Lee, who left Mechanic Falls a year ago to sell real estate and teach classes for the Maine Municipal Association, Poland seemed the perfect destination.

“I was looking for a big challenge,” he said. “I had grown rather bored in Mechanic Falls.”

A town search committee hired Lee from a pool of 23 candidates. Though he was contracted to begin work July 1, he began informally the week before. He met with Chick and began examining the way the town office worked.

“I am thoroughly committed to getting the ship righted,” Lee said.

Already, he has the endorsement of selectmen.

“For the past few years, we’ve been in crisis management,” Selectman Wendy Sanborn said. “I think he’s awesome.”

Selectman Lionel Ferland also likes Lee. He gives the town manager credit for picking up on the recent work of the board to sort out the money woes.

Ferland and Sanborn believe their workloads will lessen as Lee’s work increases.

“We can get back to what we’re supposed to do: make policy,” Ferland said.

One of Lee’s first jobs has been to redefine the Town Office pecking order, creating boundaries between elected leaders and staffers. Within 48 hours of his arrival, he created a structural chart, placing himself between every department and the selectmen.

“I’m not here to clean house,” he said. “The point is accountability.”

He also created a simple form that he distributed to selectmen and other leaders – a process to follow up routine requests from townspeople.

For instance, if someone wants a sign near their home, they can make the request to a selectman, who then fills out a sheet with the person’s name and contact information.

“It gives everybody a way to take down a beef, a concern, an idea,” Lee said. That sheet then goes with the new town manager to department head meetings.

Decision-makers may not decide to erect the sign, but the request goes to the right people.

“People deserve an answer,” Lee said. “I’m very open. I want to hear from people.”

At first, however, such work comes after financial security.

Lee plans to meet with everyone who touches town money and work out iron-clad procedures.

“We’re going to hammer out how money gets from point A to point B, how it’s accounted for, where is the check and balance on it.”

And other changes? They’ll come with time.

“This is a time of rebuilding,” Lee said. “I hope people will be patient and allow us to get our feet under ourselves.”

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