By Daymond Steer
FRYEBURG, Maine — Rick Eastman, chairman of the Fryeburg Board of Selectmen, is asking fellow selectmen to ask voters in June whether the Fryeburg Water District should be dissolved.
The proposal comes on the heels of a recent announcement by Poland Spring that it might build a $50 million bottling plant in the area.
Eastman brought up the topic under "Other Business" toward the end of the last selectmen's meeting on March 16.
He noted that the water district is a relatively recent entity, having been established in 2005 when the Fryeburg Water Co. was briefly up for sale. The Maine Legislature created the Fryeburg Water District in an emergency session so there would be a legal entity to accept the Fryeburg Water Co. in case of a sale or eminent domain.
Management of Fryeburg Water Co. was taken over last August by a company called Maine Water. According to Eastman, it is doing a good job.
The contract between Maine Water and Fryeburg Water Co. was renewed through March 2018.
But Eastman believes water district trustees have exceeded their mandate despite his efforts over the years to remind them of what their charter says.
Eastman said one of the times the district trustees overstepped is when they sent a letter to the PUC opposing the long-term deal between the water company and Nestle Waters North America, owner of Poland Spring.
"I have been very instrumental, I believe, in trying to get (the trustees) to see what their purpose is, and it's not to be the water police in Fryeburg; it's not to do educational aspects in Fryeburg," said Eastman.
"They don't realize they don't have any authority, and that causes me concern," he added.
Asked for comment on Eastman's proposal, Poland Spring spokesperson Heather Printup said, "This is really a matter for the town to decide on, and we would respect that process."
Water and Fryeburg were much in the news last year. Last May, Maine's highest court sided with Nestle after Fryeburg resident Bruce Taylor sued over Maine Public Utilities Commission's approval of Fryeburg Water Co.'s contract with Nestle.
Poland Spring withdraws spring water here and in Denmark, Maine, and area residents accused the company, which is owned by Nestle Waters, of drying up their wells during last summer's drought.
Eastman owns two water companies himself. One is a bulk water corporation called WE Corp. that does business as Pequawket Water. He also has a bottling company called Maine Pure.
Fryeburg Water District Trustee Nickie Sekera — co-founder of Community Water Justice, a network of people interested in securing water rights in Maine — was not at last Thursday's selectmen's meeting but was able to listen to a recording of it.
"It was pretty disturbing to hear Rick Eastman's proposal to shut down the Fryeburg Water District," she said, adding that Eastman had attended a district meeting the previous week and hadn't said anything about wanting to dismantle the district.
She feels that Eastman is overstepping his bounds.
The water trustees consist of Chairman Greg Huang-Dale; Treasurer Warren Richardson; Sekera, who is the clerk; Clerk Pro-tem Nels Liljedahl; and Tom Rebmann, member at large.
Sekera said she spoke to trustees over the weekend. "I think we are feeling the same way," she said.
Huang-Dale said Monday that he expects the trustees will be at the April 6 selectmen's meeting. The trustees' next scheduled meeting is April 10, but he said they may meet again before that. Huang-Dale said selectmen should not be asking town residents to dissolve the trustees and that it should be up to the board of trustees to ask for such a vote.
In a phone interview last Friday, Eastman denied having any ulterior motive for the proposal other than to do what's right for the people of Fryeburg and to create more positivity in town.
He said he's been a selectman in Lovell for 22 years and served multiple terms in Fryeburg, and he says he's found Fryeburg to have much more negativity for some reason.
Eastman believes the current board of trustees are an activist group that has gotten away from its core mission of simply waiting for Fryeburg Water District to sell.
Huang-Dale said he believes educating residents about water issues helps protect the public interest and that the trustees are not anti-Nestle but support consumers' rights to manage a public resource.
Sekera said that while it's true that the trustees don't oversee water company infrastructure, it is still important for them to be available if Fryeburg Water Co.'s shareholders decide to sell.
"We do have the right of eminent domain," said Sekera. "If we have a hope of maintaining local control within our community, it becomes critically important that we remain active and ready."
She added the trustees have been looking for funding sources if the Fryeburg Water Co. goes on the market. They also have sponsored some educational programs about water literacy that involve meetings with experts in the water infrastructure field.
Eastman vehemently denied that his desire to do away with the water district trustees is because they could use their bully pulpit to oppose a Poland Spring bottling plant here. Whether a plant is built depends not only on where Poland Spring can find a new sustainable source of water but also whether it is near viable rail lines.
"Right now, it's nothing more than a wish and a prayer," said Eastman, who hopes the plant can be built. "We are doing everything we possibly can at the town level to encourage them and support Poland if they decide to come to Fryeburg."
Eastman says the town of Fryeburg welcomes all businesses, not just Poland Spring. He said people should realize that without more businesses in town, property taxes will just keep going up.
Sekera said water trustees think Eastman's businesses create a conflict for him when he discusses water issues.
"He benefits from the sale of our town's water," said Sekera. "It seems apparent that it constitutes a conflict of interest."
Eastman said an anonymous letter, claiming Nestle was going to buy Pequawket Water, that was sent in January to the Sun and Fryeburg residents, is false.
"For 15 years now, there have been rumors, and this is no different," said Eastman. "There are no facts in that letter at all."
He said his wife, Kate, investigated and found the return address to be empty retail space in Portland.
Sekera said the information in the letter could not be verified. But she said trustees asked Eastman if he intended to sell his water companies and Eastman replied he was 'looking to make a buck and retire.'"
Town Manager Sharon Jackson said at last Thursday's meeting that selectmen will have to decide by the end of April about putting Eastman's proposal on the town warrant, to be voted on June 15.
The fate of Fryeburg water trustees has been put to the test before. In 2013, residents were asked whether the trustees should go into "inactive status," meaning there would be no elections or meetings. District voters rejected that idea 299-160.
Sekera characterized that vote as "overwhelming."
In 2014, all four sitting water district trustees — Dick Krasker, John Weston, James Oliver and Jeanette Almy — resigned. That board faced criticism from current and former trustees who said they were not doing enough to protect Fryeburg's water sovereignty.
Eastman said when that board stepped down, it was taken over by anti-Nestle members.
"All I'm trying to do is to get the information so people are passing judgment on correct information and not theory," said Eastman.
Sekera said the Fryeburg Water District recently sent letters to Fryeburg Water Co. shareholders, asking if they were thinking about selling the utility.
She said the trustees did that in the interest of public ownership and to ensure local control over groundwater. Sekera said the trustees are still waiting to hear back from the shareholders, and she wonders if sending that letter out may have spurred Eastman into action.
Richard Knowlton, vice president of operations for the Maine Water Co. said Maine Water would not take a position on Eastman's proposal.
He said Maine Water could contract its services to the trustees or continue with Fryeburg Water Co..
Other towns in Maine have taken over private water utilities, and the courts have set a low bar to do so. The sticking point that can lead to court action is whether the municipality paid the utility a fair price for the infrastructure. The Public Utility Commission would be keenly interested in a town takeover.
Knowlton said Fryeburg would have to pay money for Fryeburg Water Co. because the water district doesn't have money of its own. He said use of eminent domain to have the district take over the utility would not upend the long-term contract that Nestle Waters North America has with Fryeburg Water Co.
He added that despite the concerns of trustees about Poland Spring's water extraction, the evidence shows a benefit to the community.
"What is in it for the town if you change the status quo?" Knowlton asked rhetorically.