While recall petition falls short, residents file lawsuit against Caribou

3 years ago

CARIBOU, Maine — A petition to recall Caribou City Councilor Doug Morrell fell short of the 1,112 signatures required to submit the document. The recall committee gathered 1,059 signatures over the course of roughly three months, however only 15 were actually submitted to, and verified by, the city.

Even while still gathering signatures, Caribou residents Christine Lister and Gary Aiken, both members of the recall committee, filed a lawsuit against the city and Morrell alleging that the city violated its own charter by swearing in Morrell, whose taxes were not paid by Dec. 31, 2019.

The unpaid taxes issue was also among the complaints in the committee’s recall petition. 

Morrell was elected to the council in November 2019, and sworn in on Jan. 2, 2020.

The attorney has cited a charter interpretation adopted by the Maine Municipal Association in 2013 and later reaffirmed in 2019 that a person is not eligible to be sworn in unless current on their taxes, not that their taxes are completely paid, according to correspondence between Caribou City Manager Dennis Marker and the city attorney. 

The city’s attorney said that failing to swear in a duly elected councilor could also have constitutional ramifications for the city.

The lawsuit, filed on Nov. 4 in Caribou court, alleges that the rules regarding forfeiture for unpaid taxes in the charter are clear, and that the city violated the charter by failing to notify Morrell of the alleged forfeiture offense in open session and in writing, by failing to deliver a copy of the written offense to the city’s legal counsel, failing to hold a hearing regarding this at the next regularly scheduled meeting in compliance with the city charter, failing to judge Morrell’s qualification, failing to make a decision regarding the alleged forfeiture, and failing to vote on whether a forfeiture of office occurred.

The lawsuit was filed after nine months of research, discussions with lawyers and pleas to the council to correct the error, according to an online fundraiser for the lawsuit. “Plaintiffs and resident taxpayer citizens of Caribou have been illegally deprived of their due process and legal rights afforded by the Charter to have a legally eligible and qualified Councilor to represent us on the Caribou City Council,” the fundraiser reads.

The lawsuit requests that the court review the council’s actions, and that the defendants subsequently take any mandatory and ministerial actions required under the charter. It also requests that the plaintiffs be awarded their legal fees and costs and granted any other relief the court deems just and proper.

On Dec. 10, Lister said the city has asked for an extension to respond to the lawsuit, and that they are expecting to hear back by the end of the year. 

The recall petition, filed in early September, also asserted that Morrell used city personnel and property for his personal gain, and that he publicly made verbal threats to RSU 39 Superintendent Tim Doak and City Manager Dennis Marker. 

Morrell rejected these assertions, and said he believed the petition was an effort to remove a fiscal conservative from the city council. 

The recall petition quickly became a controversial topic, inciting numerous discussions on social media along with more than a half dozen letters to the editor in The Aroostook Republican newspaper. 

In a statement released on Dec. 9, the deadline for gathering signatures, the recall committee said that, while the petition fell short, those who signed should be proud of their efforts.

“We fell 53 signatures short of what the Charter requires,” the committee said. “The good news is that we fell short ONLY fifty-three signatures, in the 90-day timeline the committee was given, and during COVID.”

The statement also sympathized with those afraid to sign for fear of retribution.

“For those who expressed their wish to sign, but were fearful and afraid of their businesses, companies, and jobs, we respect and honor those honest responses. The recall committee heard those fears and did not ask owners of businesses to sign because of the Cancel Culture that so easily happens in small towns,” the committee said.

Throughout the time spent gathering signatures, petitioners set up at various locations throughout the city, including the Caribou Legion and at the city’s polling place, the Wellness and Recreation Center, during the Nov. 3 election.

An earlier version of this article stated that the petition fell short by 53 signatures.