[Editor’s note: this version of the story corrects an error relating to who burned the former town office after it was demolished. According to selectman Jim Bennett, it was a group of citizens and not the town fire department as previously reported.]

A last-minute effort by a group of Thorndike residents to preserve the old town office came too late according to Selectman Jim Bennett, who oversaw the demolition of the building on Jan. 16, shortly after the new town office opened next door.

Those who hoped to preserve the 120-year-old former schoolhouse say its demolition was never approved by residents. They have also questioned the amount of money the town spent on the new office, figures that have yet to be released, and say the way the issue was handled points to a larger lack of transparency in the town’s government.

“This is the straw that broke the camel’s back, when [Bennett] destroyed a building that at least half the town didn’t want destroyed,” said Anthony Brillard, who along with other residents circulated the recent petition to stop the demolition of the building.

Brillard and others collected 50 signatures in early January from residents on a petition seeking a paper ballot vote at the upcoming annual town meeting regarding the disposition of the old town office building. They also requested an accounting of who approved the design and budget for the new one and how much it ultimately cost to build.

The group enlisted attorney Kristin Collins of the Belfast law firm Kelly & Associates, who was reportedly considering seeking a court injunction on behalf of the petitioners to stop the demolition of the building around the same time.

In a Jan. 11 letter to the Thorndike selectmen, attorney William Dale of the Portland law firm Jensen Baird Gardner Henry noted the potential legal action and recommended not razing the old building any sooner than noon on that Friday, Jan. 13.

Bennett later said the fate of the building was a done deal as far as he was concerned.

“They had five or six years to work on it and they waited right up to the last five minutes,” he said.

An excavator was brought in to topple the old office, and according to Bennett, the building didn’t put up much resistance. The debris was later burned by a group of citizens, Bennett said.

Discussions of a new town office date to 2007, but with the demolition of the old office some residents are taking a closer look at what actions were actually approved by townspeople.

Last March voters approved spending $250,000 to build the new town office based on reports that the old one had mold and structural problems deemed too significant to repair. Some of these problems, like the caved-in floor of the records room, were self-evident, but others have been challenged.

A side-by-side comparison of repairing or replacing the building presented to residents last spring came up strongly in favor of building a new office, but the factors used to determine the per-square-foot expense were drastically different in each case.

The March 2011 town meeting question approving the budget for the new office made no mention of what would happen to the old building, but Bennett says residents previously approved demolishing the building.

The 55-15 vote to which he referred, taken at the 2007 town meeting, asked if residents wished to repair or replace the old office. Official minutes indicate that the vote tally came out in favor of a new building, but several residents, including Brillard, say those minutes are inaccurate and that the vote was actually to determine the relative cost of repairs to the old building or a replacement.

A VillageSoup article from that time described the vote as being “in favor of building a new town office, which will set in motion an information-gathering process, the results of which will be presented at a future meeting.” The article went on to say, “At that time, residents will have another chance to vote on whether they want to go ahead with erecting a new structure.”

The issue of the town office was raised again in 2008 in a warrant article that included reference to the “disposal of” the old office, but the article was passed over.

Bennett claims residents not only approved demolishing the old building but would have seen in the plans for the new office that the old office location was slated to be a parking lot.

“The town voted twice to get rid of it and [the residents trying to save the building] waited until too late. You can’t wait until after it’s done,” he said. “… There’s not one person in the town didn’t know that building was going to be torn down and got rid of.”

Brillard offered a different take.

“There’s not a person in town who could say that they specifically voted to tear that building down,” he said. “Because it’s never been specifically said.”

Patricia Pendergast, who was also part of the recent petition drive to save the old office, questioned the amount of money spent on the new building and said residents were promised cost estimates that didn’t materialize, and still haven’t.

“Nobody enters into contracts like that without the will of the people behind them,” she said. “This isn’t what democracy is all about. This isn’t what having a selectperson who’s supposed to be representing the town is all about.”

Bennett said recently that he is confident the new building will come in under budget and said he will present the final figures at the upcoming annual town meeting.

In the meantime, Brillard, Pendergast and others are pursuing legal action to obtain information from the town, including audits from past years, documentation of amounts paid toward the new building, and other papers relating to the viability of the old town office.