NEW GLOUCESTER — An Augusta construction company paid for 150 signs urging New Gloucester residents to vote yes on building a controversial public works garage — a $4.6 million building the company had a contract to build if the voters approved the project.
After buying the signs, which didn’t reveal the company or its affiliation, the construction company gave them to the town’s public works director, who then, according to some town leaders, assigned his workers to put them up around town.
The situation has caused some residents and town leaders to cry foul, saying it was unethical for the construction company to lobby for a taxpayer project that it will make money from and unethical, if not illegal, for public employees to help.
They believe the interference may have swayed voters, who approved the project Monday by just 30 votes.
“Obviously (the construction company’s owner) had a private interest, as did several people involved in this, and it didn’t reflect the public’s interest by and large,” resident Pat O’Brien said. “Although the vote carried in a yes fashion, perhaps it was influenced in part by some of this, what I call obstructionism.”
However, Ganneston Construction Corp’s owner, Stacey Morrison, said she bought the signs only because town officials didn’t have the money to do so and she wanted to help. She said she gave them to Public Works because it was a convenient location to drop them off.
“To the best of my knowledge, we adhered to the Maine Ethical Commission and campaign laws,” she said in an email Wednesday.
The project calls for building a six-bay garage on 25 acres at 611 Lewiston Road. It has been controversial, with some residents questioning the location or balking at the expense.
Ganneston won the construction bid last November, nearly a year before the project went to voters for approval. The company beat out three others for the contract.
Selectman Stephen Hathorne said he recently learned from some people in town that Ganneston had paid for dozens of signs urging voters to approve the project. He said townspeople saw two public works employees putting them up.
Hathorne — who opposed the project and paid $158 for 50 of his own “vote no” roadside signs — brought the situation to wide public attention during Monday’s special town meeting to vote on the project.
“I have ethical problems with it,” he said Wednesday. “Anybody with any ethical (principles) would find it concerning.”
Town Manager Carrie Castonguay confirmed Wednesday that Ganneston had bought 150 “vote yes” signs. She said anyone can buy signs and the purchase itself was not illegal.
She declined to comment on any assertion that taxpayer-paid public works employees put up those signs.
“That’s a personnel issue,” she said.
However, in an email to O’Brien this week, Castonguay acknowledged that town workers had posted Ganneston’s signs.
“I received a call from a resident that town employees were putting up signs. As soon as I received the call, I immediately ordered them to stop, which they did,” she said in the email.
Public Works Director Ted Shane referred all questions to the town manager.
Morrison, Ganneston’s owner, said Wednesday that she spent just under $800 for the “vote yes” signs and she did so because the Public Works Design Committee — the town working group tasked with the project’s design — wanted roadside signs but didn’t have the money for them.
She said she delivered the signs to Public Works because the director was a member of that design committee, so his department happened to be a convenient place to drop them off.
“Ganneston Construction has been transparent in all of our work with the Public Works Design working group and at the informational meetings related to the development of the new facility,” she said.
Morrison said the signs did not note who paid for them because “to the best of my knowledge it was not a requirement.”
“Ganneston Construction prides itself on integrity, and my only intent in purchasing the signs and delivering them was to assist and be supportive,” she said.
James Fitch, chairman of the Public Works Design Committee, confirmed that Morrison offered to buy the signs because the committee had no funds of its own to do it.
Fitch said he and another committee member put up some of Ganneston’s signs. He said the public works director planned to have his workers put up signs as well.
Fitch saw it as a way to “get the vote out.”
“I don’t see anything wrong, quite honestly. This is just me speaking. I don’t speak for the town, I don’t speak for a committee,” he said. “This was a town project, so I personally don’t see anything wrong with the town that wants to do something, going forward and taking people that are part of their payroll to do tasks associated with that.”
O’Brien, who has also served on various town committees over the years, feels differently.
“Just the implication of the arrogance of sending out employees that are part of my tax payments … to use those town resources to set up signs that say ‘we should go ahead with this’ and they’re using my resources to do it, that’s not fair to me in terms of the process,” he said.
O’Brien also believes Ganneston’s involvement was inappropriate at best and a blatant conflict of interest at worst.
“(Morrison) knows what the score is on things like this. It’s not a proper role for the winning bidder,” he said.
The Maine Municipal Association, which advises town and city officials, declined to comment on either the legalities or the ethics of New Gloucester’s situation or on political roadside signs in general.
“Local events like this can have details and sides and nuances that we don’t know about, so we don’t weigh in,” spokesman Eric Conrad said.
It is unclear what consequences there might be, if any.
Linda Chase, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said the issue may be discussed at the next meeting.
O’Brien wants the Public Works Design Committee reviewed to conclude whether it was authorized to go from overseeing the bidding process to “political activism.”
“I don’t believe they were,” he said.
Hathorne said he just wishes it hadn’t happened.
“I would like to be able to wave a magic wand and undo it all,” he said.