Towns accuse Knox County commissioners of 'hubris' in dispute over pandemic relief funds

·3 min read

Oct. 20—A group of Knox County towns is claiming that the county commissioners have not appropriately followed the county's budget process in deciding how it will spend millions of dollars of federal relief funds.

Attorneys representing Camden and Thomaston ― with support from Rockport and Rockland officials ― said in a letter that the commissioners lack sole authority to spend the funding without approval from the county's budget committee. The letter claims that the commissioners could make themselves personally liable by not following this budget process outlined in the county charter.

"Article V of the Knox County Charter requires the budget committee to approve the budget; the position taken by the county commissioners that they may expend 7.7 million dollars as unapproved expenditures is stunning," the letter states. "The affirmative act of the commissioners to avoid the normal budget process is an act of hubris that is going to create more than discontent among the municipalities in Knox County; it is going to create personal legal liability for the Commissioners."

The letter will be sent to commissioners Wednesday, according to Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell.

For months, Knox County commissioners have been considering ways to spend the $7.7 million the county is set to receive through the American Recovery Plan Act, which was intended to help local governments recover from pandemic-related losses and promote economic recovery. The number of requests for funds the county received far outweighed the funding pool.

Most recently, the commissioners whittled down the dozens of requests from towns and nonprofits to a list of about seven that they felt were final contenders for funding. However, it is still unclear when a final decision will be made on which proposals will receive funding.

Drafting of the letter comes just a week after a contentious county commission meeting, in which commissioners attempted to bar supporters of a local broadband utility effort from speaking.

"The express prohibition of allowing Knox County residents from speaking is not just poor judgment, but a violation of the Freedom of Access Act and procedural due process on a constitutional level. That meeting was run like something out of the Antebellum South," the letter states.

The utility, the Midcoast Internet Development Corp., is made up of the towns of Camden, Rockport, Thomaston and Rockland. The group had requested about $750,000 in federal funding, though commissioners did not advance the request to its list of priorities.

At the Oct. 12 meeting, Commissioner Dorothy Meriwether accused the broadband group of bullying the commissioners in its attempts to receive county funding, an accusation that the group denies.

At their Select Board meeting Tuesday night, Camden town officials said the commissioners' vote to bar public comment at the Oct. 12 meeting was a violation of the democratic process and raised concerns about a general lack of transparency surrounding the federal funding process.

"It has to be [on] my list, one of the worst led meetings in terms of ability to discuss an item, to get accurate information, to glean the information, to review the information and come up with substantive decisions rather than shooting from the hip. Because that's what it feels like," Camden Select Board Chair Bob Falciani said.

Through the letter, the towns are asking county commissioners to provide a written response with "cited legal authority" as to why they feel the process they are taking for allocating the federal relief funds is legally appropriate.

The commissioners did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting