HAMPDEN — When Michael Hastings put his home up for sale more than a year ago, it never occurred to him that he also might be risking his seat on the Town Council.
Now Hastings must step down as the District 3 councilor, a casualty of his failure to consider beforehand the consequences of a move outside his district, and what he calls fuzzy wording in the town charter.
“It was unclear when we moved that this would be an issue,” Hastings said Friday.
The council will discuss Hastings’ situation at its meeting tonight.
Hastings’ Main Road North house went on the market in September 1996. At the time, he said, he and his wife, Sharyn, had their eyes on a house on Summer Street, which still would have been in District 3. They had to sell their house first, however, and there were few prospects. The Summer Street house went to another buyer.
It wasn’t until last November, just days after Hastings survived a strong challenge from Rick Briggs to win a second term on the council, that the Hastingses found both a serious buyer for their Main Road North house and a house on Short Wharf Road they wanted for themselves.
Hastings wrote a letter to Town Manager Marie Baker advising her that he might be moving out of his district. He asked how such a move would affect his position on the council. Baker passed the letter on to Town Attorney Thomas Russell for a legal opinion.
On Monday afternoon, Dec. 15, Hastings closed on the Short Wharf Road house. At a council meeting just a few hours later, Russell said that as he interpreted the town charter, Hastings would have to give up his seat.
Councilors were silent at the news. Although nobody objected to Russell’s conclusion, some councilors scrunched their foreheads, looking as if mentally searching for a loophole that could keep Hastings on the council.
The Town Council is made up of four district councilors representing different geographic areas and two at-large councilors. According to Russell, the town charter requires district councilors to live in the district they represent. It also stipulates that councilors forfeit their seat if they fail to meet any of the qualifications outlined elsewhere in the charter.
Hastings said Friday he met all qualifications at the time of last November’s election, and that the charter “is not clear” about what should happen when a district councilor moves outside of his district while already in office.
Russell acknowledged that the charter raises some questions because the residency language for at-large councilors is different than that for district councilors.
He said said he knows of a couple of past instances when at-large councilors moved within the town, or district councilors moved within their district, and their council seats were not threatened.
Russell said, however, that the charter is clear that the majority of councilors are supposed to represent districts.
“Since it was decided to have district representation,” he said, “it is critical to have a councilor live in the district he represents.”
When Hastings moved outside District 3, he no longer met that qualification. Consequently, according to Russell, the charter’s forfeiture clause kicked in. “If we didn’t interpret it that way,” he said, “councilors could live outside of Hampden.”
Hastings was to have been sworn in for his second term at tonight’s council meeting. Instead, the council will formally accept his resignation and discuss how to fill his seat. At issue, according to Town Manager Baker, is whether a special election must be called.
“I regret the whole thing, frankly,” Hastings said Friday. “I feel bad for the people who supported me.”
Hastings, who is executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Innovations Center in Brewer, chairman of the state’s Oil Spill Commission and a member of the state’s Marine Resources Advisory Committee, does not know whether he will run for elected office in the future, but he did not rule out the possibility.
“I enjoyed serving,” he said. “I was looking forward to serving another two years.”