New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said the lumber that went missing from the City Yard was a "screw up," but said he doesn't believe it was criminal in nature.

In his weekly appearance on WBSM, Mitchell said that as the elected leader of the City of New Bedford, he takes personal responsibility for the City's assets and things that are in custody of the City. The lumber, rare antique yellow pine from the former Fairhaven Mills that had been set aside for the restoration of the schooner Ernestina, went missing from the City Yard sometime in 2016.

"We delved into what happened last year after it came up, and what's clear to me is that there was a series of miscommunications among employees in the (Department of Public Infrastructure) that led them to say, 'You know, this wood has been sitting around a long time, and there's somebody entrusted in taking it away, so if they're going to pay for it, they're welcome to haul it away,'" Mitchell said. "And that never should have happened."

"It shouldn't have left the City's control without some greater level of due diligence about its value and who is entitled to it," he said. "But as I look at it, it's very clear that's the nature of it, just people not paying attention."

Mitchell said it appears as though a resident living near the Quittacas Pond water treatment facility saw the wood and was interested in it, and was allowed to haul it away sometime in 2016.

"They said, 'Hey, you guys doing anything with this?' and the response back from DPI was, 'Yeah, you want to pay for the removal, go ahead,'" Mitchell said. "It's been sitting there for years, and they were under the impression that the Ernestina couldn't use it because the wood itself had nails and steel and other things that they thought made it unusable. That may or may not have been true, and honestly, it doesn't still should have been accounted for."

The mayor also said it appears at least one DPI employee did go to the Ernestina commission and explain what happened to the lumber, and apologized for the mistake, sometime in 2017.

Mitchell said he has no problems with the questions WBSM's Ken Pittman and others have raised in relation to the disappearance of the lumber.

"We embrace that. I embrace that," he said. "Even if I'm satisfied about what happened, if people aren't satisfied, then we have to take reasonable steps to make sure that we get the information into the daylight, because (otherwise) people start speculating about motives and trust and things like that."

Mitchell said that finding out the complete story is the "top priority" right now of the City's personnel director, Sandra Vezina, and that when she has completed her review, the City will release all the pertinent details it can, depending on personnel protections.

"The effort here is both to let the public know as much as we can reasonably get our hands on so that they have a better understanding," he said. "But secondly, and probably more importantly, we don't want it to happen again."

Mitchell said one thing he is especially concerned about is how the DPI is disposing of materials it can't use. He said it's been a practice that if there are materials they can't put to use such as fill or loam, they've allowed contractors to take it away for their own use.

"I think we've got to take a hard look at that," he said. "Even at the risk of being too legalistic, that stuff needs to be documented."

Mitchell noted that his administration will do the best it can to trace where the wood ended up but noted that once it is out of the City's control, it's harder to find out where it went. He said they do know who it was that took the lumber away, but that party either sold it or gave it to someone else.

"And we don't have subpoena power to bring people in (and question them)," he said.

He did, though, say that at some point, the wood was still in position to be returned.

"What is clear is that the folks that got it didn't want to give it up," Mitchell said. When asked for clarification on whether Mitchell meant the original party that removed the lumber or the second party that later got possession of it, Public Information Officer for the City of New Bedford Jonathan Carvalho said details will be shared once Vezina has completed her review.

Still, Mitchell said he sees no reason to believe, at least as far as City government is concerned, that anything untoward happened with the lumber.

"I'm not seeing any evidence of a crime," the former federal prosecutor said. "Having been in the business of prosecuting criminals for a living for 11 years, if I saw even a scintilla of evidence that it should be treated (as such), then we would refer it to the District Attorney's office."

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