2017-05-18 / Front Page

Lawsuit against Saco officials is dismissed

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

SACO – Justice John O’Neil Jr. ruled late on Friday, May 12 to dismiss Saco resident Barbara Colman’s lawsuit against Saco city officials. Colman, who lives on Stockman Avenue, was suing Saco city officials over the sale of property at 95 King St. to Thornton Academy. The property was the site of an assisted living facility and Thornton Academy is planning on using the space for housing.

Colman’s attorney argued in court that the property was under contract to never be sold to a nonprofit so that it would stay on the tax role. Colman alleged that the city failed to take the contract rezoning before the city planning board, and rushed the sale of the property without operating through proper channels.

According to Tim Murphy, attorney for the city of Saco, a city resident cannot sue the city without a unique claim to harm or damages. Murphy purported that Colman does not live directly adjacent to the property and even if she did live in the neighborhood, the environment would not change as there would be no installation of new lights or a projected increase in traffic. She would also not feel an increase in taxes greater than any other resident of the city of Saco. Murphy described the allegations against the city as a “waste of time.”

After the court hearing Colman’s attorney Alan Shepard said Colman is “losing money” on the lawsuit and is not doing so for her own gain. He described a close relationship between the city of Saco and Thornton Academy, characterizing the real estate transaction between the two parties as a back door deal. Shepard said Colman has shed light on the situation to no personal benefit to herself.

Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard said he wasn’t in a position to evaluate the city’s proceedings and protocols.

“The case was with the city, not Thornton Academy. I trust the city handled things appropriately,” Menard said.

Kevin Sutherland, city administrator for Saco, called the judge’s decision “good news.” Not only did Sutherland not believe Colman had reason to bring a case to court, but based on the merits of the suit he was confident the city would have won. He echoed Murphy’s sentiment when he said the whole process was a waste of taxpayer dollars. As of deadline, a request for the amount of money spent by the city on the suit, was not returned.

Sutherland said had the property owner at 95 King St. chosen to expand the property, that decision would have gone before the planning board. Since the amendment to the contract zone was only changing who could own the property, it was a matter for only the city council. In an email to his staff in December 2016, Sutherland characterized Colman’s inquiries as “repetitive ... disruptive and keep(s) the organization from moving forward.”

In the same December email and again in May 2017, he asked all requests made to his staff by Colman above and beyond the standard requests of a resident to be directed to him personally. Sutherland said he felt his email in December has been a source of animosity and a reason behind the lawsuit. However, he maintains he is trying to be as transparent as possible, but that city staff can only do so much.

“I have incredible department heads and staff who are here to serve the public and will continue to do that to the best of their ability. It comes with respect for one another and for the process.”

Sutherland’s advice for residents who would like to remain active in the community?

“Use your three minutes during meetings, run for office, get appointed to a board or committee – there’s plenty of them with open seats.”

Colman said she doesn’t not know the plans of current Ward 3 City Councilor William Doyle to run for re-election in November, but expressed interest in running for the seat should he choose not to.

Colman said she accepts the court’s decision but will not step back. She still needs to speak to her attorney, but is interested in appealing the court’s decision if possible. Colman said all she is asking for is recognition of the concerns of Saco taxpayers.

The lawsuit was not a waste of time or money for Colman, she said, as long as both parties learned from the process and begin to make corrections. She said costs could have been avoided if Sutherland and the city had agreed to her multiple requests for mediation. While Colman wanted to clarify that watchdog group Saco Citizens for Sensible Government – a group of which she is a member – was not directly involved with the present case against the city, she encouraged Sutherland to attend their meetings and engage with members. The group would like to see information released in a more timely manner, increased accessibility on the city website and an acknowledgement of the group’s efforts.

Saco Citizens for Sensible Government, according to its website, is a nonpartisan committee formed to hold city officials accountable to budgetary concerns and encourage active civic engagement among Saco residents. Colman said they formed about six years ago and since Sutherland’s arrival in Saco in 2015 he has attended one Saco Citizens for Sensible Government meeting.

On Wednesday, May 3, Colman emailed Sutherland regarding the public hearing process for the city budget. Sutherland replied to her email the following day against the advice of the city attorney, and in the email said he didn’t understand how the Saco Citizens for Sensible Government came to have such a strong influence over city council but it has to come to an end.

“Stop with the distrust of city hall, the commandeering of the budget process and wasting staff time chasing down perceived mistakes,” Sutherland wrote.

Colman said she feels like Sutherland doesn’t want to talk to her.

“I really do like Kevin. I wish he would sit down and meet with me as a person. I’ll be the first one to offer help,” Colman said.

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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