Thorndike flips board of selectmen, takes control of fire department

Frustration from firefighters, town boosters tips the balance
By Ethan Andrews | Mar 17, 2019
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Joshua Ard signs papers after being sworn in as one of three new selectmen elected at Thorndike's annual town meeting March 16, with Robert Nelson and Michael Mayer, background left. Town meeting Moderator Donald Berry, right, looks on.

Thorndike — A standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 voting residents cleaned house on March 16, replacing all three selectmen and starting a municipal fire department in an effort to rein in the town's embattled independent fire company.

Former Selectman Robert Nelson, who served the town for 14 or 15 years ending in the mid-2000s, narrowly beat incumbent First Selectman Larry Ward, 53-49. Speaking before the meeting, Nelson described his decision to come back.

"Let's put it this way, this town has a lot of friction," he said. "Things go back and forth and there's a tremendous amount of misinformation. There's people who would like to see a change right now."

After the vote, Ward walked out of the meeting. In the muddy parking lot of the town office, he said, "I got cows to feed."

Selectmen Bob Carter and Larry Hustus both declined their nominations, opening the door to political newcomers Joshua Ard and Michael Mayer, who were elected second and third selectmen, respectively, over Shawn Bristol who was nominated twice. The votes were 43-41 for Ard and 58-39 for Mayer.

After the vote, Bristol, a captain at Thorndike Fire Department, said he ran to replace the sitting selectmen, whom he said had "shown a complete lack of professionalism themselves." The wording was a reference to a letter the town received from four emergency services organizations in January that accused the fire department of the same.

Ousting the selectmen turned out to be the goal of his opponents, and for somewhat the same reasons.

Ard and Mayer both grew up in Western Waldo County, graduated from Mount View High School together in 2005 and left the area for a time — Ard traveling around the country, while Mayer mostly stayed within Maine — before returning to Thorndike to raise families. Both said they ran for selectman in response to the recent collapse of the fire department, which they attributed largely to poor communication by the selectmen.

The letter from the emergency services groups in January brought tensions between the town and fire department to a head. At a Feb. 20 selectmen's meeting, all but one of the town's firefighters quit after selectmen refused their demand to release roughly $85,000 from a truck and equipment replacement fund and reinstate as a firefighter former Fire Chief George Russell, who resigned after being called out as inexperienced in the letter from emergency services organizations.

"The selectmen offered no apology to the town of Thorndike for letting that situation unfold," Ard said. "I can't imagine 28 people would walk out on a job they do for free, overnight."

Mayer also welcomed the turnover on the board of selectmen.

"It's good to get a new group of people and new thoughts on the town," he said.

The election might have gone differently if not for a push by the Thorndike Community Action Committee, which announced that Ard and Mayer would be running and worked behind the scenes in the days before the town meeting to get voters to show up on Saturday.

Zoey Bond, who founded the group about two years ago, said her hope was to remove the sitting selectmen, whom she and others have come to associate with the town's black-box years under the late Jim Bennett. She was visibly relieved after the vote.

"I'm thrilled that we got all three out," she said. "It was a lot of work."

Bond and the committee started several popular holiday events and have been credited with a revival of community spirit in Thorndike Village. Ard and Mayer said the former selectmen never got behind the groundswell, but they hope to change that by attending local events.

Residents on Saturday also voted to create a municipal fire department. Previously, Thorndike had an independent fire company that operated with town funding. The workings of the new department, according to several town officials, will be largely the same with one major exception: Selectmen will now have to approve all members of the department, not just the chief.

The three new selectmen are expected to formally appoint a chief at their next regular meeting. Ard said he doesn't anticipate any kind of shake-up at the department or see the new selectmen getting involved with how firefighters do their job, but he wants to have better communication.

"It's not a control thing," he said. "It's more of working together."

Several residents on Saturday asked about money held by the independent fire company, which maintained a separate bank account for donations to the department. Town Clerk Doreen Berry said future donations, including money collected in roadside "boot drives," would most likely have to be funneled into the new municipal department.

By the end of the meeting, it remained unclear what would happen to the money already in there, which several residents estimated at $18,000.

Thorndike Selectmen Larry Ward, Bob Carter and Larry Hustus, from left, wait for the start of the annual town meeting March 16. All three were replaced in town elections, with Ward losing his race and Carter and Hustus declining nominations. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
More than 100 people filled the meeting room at the Thorndike Town Office March 16 for the annual town meeting, at which a three selectmen were replaced. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
Members of the Thorndike Fire Department stand together during an annual town meeting March 16 that was colored by a recent showdown between firefighters and selectmen. On Saturday, Shawn Bristol, second from right, ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the board. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
Former Thorndike Selectman Larry Hustus talks to a resident during the annual town meeting March 16. Hustus declined a nomination for another term. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
Thorndike voters on March 16 adopted an ordinance that creates a municipal fire department to replace the town-funded independent fire company. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
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