FRYEBURG, Maine — Fryeburg Water trustees plan to confront selectmen today over their questioning last month whether they had exceeded their authority when they asked about buying the private water works that serves the town and Poland Spring.
The trustees say they also intend to take on one selectman's prediction that water rates would skyrocket if trustees ended up purchasing the utility.
Tonight's selectmen's meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the town office.
The trustees are not on the agenda; however, they can speak during the public forum portion of the meeting, said Town Manager Sharon Jackson.
The subject of the Fryeburg Water District's authority was raised by Selectman Rick Eastman at the June 22 meeting.
Eastman said the trustees wrote to Fryeburg Water Co. asking whether its leaders would sell the private waterworks that is managed by a company called Maine Water. The trustees are looking at getting funding for the purchase from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"I would question whether they have the authority to do what they just did," replied Selectman Kimberly Clarke, who lives in the water district.
Clarke said it was hard to believe the trustees could make such a move without consulting voters.
Eastman replied, "Welcome to the Janice and Rick Club."
He was referring to himself and fellow selectman Janice Crawford, both of whom have long been critical of the trustees.
On Tuesday, Greg Huang-Dale, chairman of the trustees, said in an email that there was "no question" they have the authority to look into purchasing the water company.
"Our charter, established by the Maine State Legislature in 2006 states that the District 'through its trustees, may acquire by purchase the entire plant, properties, franchises, rights and privileges owned by the Fryeburg Water Company," he wrote.
Funding for the purchase could be obtained through a Maine Rural Development program, he said.
Shareholders of the Fryeburg Water Co. have not officially responded to the trustees' inquiries, said Huang-Dale who said there are only a handful of them.
At Monday's trustees' meeting, board members pledged they would not purchase the water company without first seeking a town vote. The trustees also said they would clearly state any ramifications of buying the waterworks.
"I myself would not vote to go forward with that without getting a vote from the district," said trustee Tom Rebmann. "Otherwise, I would vote no."
On Monday, the trustees approved two rebuttal statements to selectmens' remarks. They provided them Tuesday to the Sun.
"We call upon our public officials to recuse themselves from votes which lead to the appearance of a conflict of interest according to the guidelines of the Maine Municipal Association," it said.
Eastman owns a bulk water company called WE Corp., and Huang-Dale believes Eastman's criticisms could create the perception of a conflict of interest.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Eastman said WE Corp. would be unaffected if the trustees took over the water company because WE Corp is regulated by Maine's Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health and Humane Services, while the water company is regulated by the Public Utilities Commission.
Eastman said he would recuse himself if he ever thought he had a conflict and said he's asked fellow selectmen and the town manager to inform him if they felt he had a conflict.
Huang-Dale said Crawford, who is executive director of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, promotes Poland Spring and does not promote the water district. He said she should not appear to be working for business interests over public interests.
Eastman said he hoped selectmen can work things out with the trustees tonight.
The trustees didn't cite any potential conflicts with either Clarke or other selectmen Tom Klinepeter and Rich Murray.
Also at the June 22 selectmen's meeting, Clarke said district voters would be unlikely to support purchase of the waterworks.
"I personally don't want to see my water bills triple and quadruple or times 10, which is what would happen in that scenario," she said.
The trustees addressed that comment by saying: "There is no evidence of the need for a rate change if the district were to buy out the water company for the benefit of the rate-payers."
The trustees reviewed the rates Fryeburg Water Company charges and compared them to rates in the other 154 Maine water districts. They found that Fryeburg's rates are about average.
Former district trustee Warren Richardson said there was no way the Public Utility Commission would allow massive rate increases like the ones Clarke described. He said publicly owned water districts have lower costs than Fryeburg Water Company.
"This becomes a 'birther type' thing, in my opinion," said Richardson, referring to debunked claims that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Huang-Dale said that at the trustees' Aug. 14 meeting, they will have two representatives of Maine Rural Development to take questions from the public. That meeting starts at 7 p.m. at the American Legion building on Bradley Street.