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E-mails point to influence

Opinion, SeacoastOnline, November 19, 2009 2:00 AM

A Nov. 3 vote on water-rights in Wells already is well behind us, but we return to the issue this week with a story on communications between Poland Spring and a handful of town officials.  We stumbled across the story, as we report, after Jason Heft of the Ordinance Review Committee forwarded our way via e-mail a letter to the editor.

The letter stood out because it was signed by Heft but appeared to have been written by Corey Hascall of Barton & Gingold, the public relations firm out of Portland that has represented Poland Spring in its efforts to find new sources of spring water in southern Maine. It came as an attachment to a blank e-mail sent by Heft. The subject line on the attachment, an e-mail that had been forwarded to Heft by Hascall, said simply, “JASON: letter for your review.”

Hascall wrote that she had “finally drafted a letter to the editor for your review,” asked what Heft thought, and added that he was welcome to “use the whole letter just as it is, parts of it, or none of it. Your call! Just let me know if you need me to keep editing it.”

It needs to be made clear that there is nothing illegal about Heft’s decision to work with a company interested in coming to Wells. There is not even a direct conflict of interest — it doesn’t appear that Heft would have stood to benefit financially by helping Poland Spring.

The problem is one of perception — how will the voters feel knowing public officials chosen to represent their interests were not just taking sides on this issue, but actively working with a company caught in the middle of a contentious debate?

Heft was a member of a committee that drafted the controversial ordinance that was a subject of the Nov. 3 vote. Depending on one’s perspective, the document sought either to create regulations to protect the town from over-use of water by Poland Spring, or opened the door to the company by adding water extraction as a permitted use in Wells.

Spurred by Heft’s correspondence, the Coast Star sent a Freedom of Access request to Wells Town Manager Jane Duncan and also the members of the Wells Board of Selectmen and the Ordinance Review Committee. We requested all e-mail correspondence between Duncan, selectmen and review committee members that pertained to the water debate. We received a variety of responses, from an “anonymous” reply sent by “zachary johnson [mailto:adio32072@yahoo.com]” that claimed the individual had no e-mails because his or her computer had “s**t the bed” and urged the Star to “TFB Get over yourself and move on to more inportant things,” to a handful of e-mails between Corey Hascall and local business owners and public officials. Ordinance Review Committee members Bob Lavoie and Leo Menard, an alternate, were among those included on e-mail correspondence with Hascall, including an e-mail in which Hascall appeared to orchestrate a schedule of letters to the editor and meetings with members of Voices of Reason, a group formed to urge passage of the ordinance in Wells.

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act is intended to help ensure public business remains public, and to shed light on the public process.

Under Title 1, Chapter 13, Section 402.3 of the Maine statutes, e-mail correspondence by public officials is considered part of the public record, which includes “any written, printed or graphic matter or any mechanical or electronic data compilation from which information can be obtained … ” that pertains to public business.

While the editorial page of the Star advocated for the water ordinance, we feel it is incumbent upon public officials to act in the interest of their constituents. We all have our personal opinions, but we sincerely hope, as those public officials questioned for our story claim, that Poland Spring did not have undue influence in the drafting of regulations meant to help the town, not the company.

— The Coast Star

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