2016-02-26 / Front Page

City appointment leads to Tammany Hall comparisons

Councilor promises to withdraw nomination unless candidate agrees to not run for state Legislature
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A routine city council appointment erupted into accusations of impropriety in South Portland Feb. 17, amid charges that one councilor tried to parlay his nominating power into political favors.

In addition to words like “blackmail” and “sickening,” the incident brought comparisons to Tammany Hall — the Democratic Party political machine in New York City that, under “Boss” Tweed in the 19th century, became a byword for political corruption.

“This is ugly,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “This smacks of old cronyism politics, and I’m frankly disgusted. I’m appalled. I don’t even know where to go. I mean, this just smacks of Tammany Hall politics.”

“I’m disappointed,” agreed Councilor Maxine Beecher. “In some ways, it looks like a little blackmail, and even (saying) that word makes me sick.”

Councilor Eben Rose had agreed to nominate former Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis for a seat representing District 3 on the South Portland Civil Service Commission. However, after getting wind “through the grapevine” that De Angelis intended to run against City Councilor Brad Fox for the Democratic Party nomination to House District 33 in the Maine Legislature, Rose attempted to withdraw the nomination.

After initially having the city clerk take the appointment off the agenda on Tuesday, Feb. 16 – the day before the council meeting – Mayor Tom Blake ruled the item had to stand, as published on the web the previous Friday.

“I gave bad advice as we found out we could not do that for the item, so we went back to original posting,” Blake said the next day. “A simple mistake on my part. A state parliamen- tarian was consulted on this question and gave us the advice (to restore the agenda).”

However, by the time the agenda item was re-posted, others on the council had questioned the brief disappearance of De Angelis’ nomination, leading to discovery of a string of emails between she and Rose.

“CSS or State Rep”

The email thread began on Saturday, Feb. 13. In it, Rose acknowledged there is no legal block, in either state law or the city charter, that prevents someone from serving on the civil service commission and in the state Legislature simultaneously. Still, he wrote, because the commission weighs in on the hiring, firing, promotion and discipline of firefighters and police officers, having a legislator serve in that role might make commission actions seem politically motivated.

“Civil servants need to be assured that any job performance evaluation or appeal is not politically motivated. The public needs to be assured of this as well,” Rose wrote, referencing the same wellspring of political corruption cited by Morgan.

“This concern goes back to the Tammany Hall days,” Rose wrote. “I assume since you have obtained the CSC nomination that you are not intending to run, at least this goaround. Please confirm so that your nomination can go forward as planned, OK?”

Although considered largely archaic and since disbanded in many Maine municipalities, civil service commissions arose in the early 20th century as a way of battling rampant nepotism. At a time when there were few qualifications to serve outside of having a head large enough to fill the helmet, fire and police departments were known as paid repositories for the siblings, cousins, nephews and in-laws of mayors, city managers and council chairmen.

The federal Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883 set that stage for reform by requiring that government jobs on the national level be awarded on merit and not doled out as political appointments. But in the modern era, training requirements and professional qualifications needed to even apply as a city firefighter or police officer have made the original purpose of the civil service commission largely moot. In South Portland, the commission oversees the testing of applicants and makes recommendations, but the final hiring decision belongs to the police and fire chiefs, working in concert with the city manager. Efforts to disband the commission, or alter its purpose, were briefly pursued in 2010, and again in 2012, but were dropped each time, largely over union objections.

When De Angelis replied to Rose that she saw no inherent conflict between the commission post and a legislative seat, he reiterated his concern.

“A CSC appointee who is also running for state office or holds state office aligned with (a political) party taints civil service appointments and oversight in the way that Teddy Roosevelt railed against in the New York State House,” he wrote. “I agree see it as a conflict of interest.”

When pressed about her legislative aspirations in the coming election cycle, De Angelis said she had “made no plans at this moment.”

District 33 serves the central and western parts of South Portland. In 2014, De Angelis was the Democratic Party nominee. She lost to Republican Kevin Battle by 65 votes, of 3,204 cast. Green Party candidate Andrew Ready, who got 329 votes, may have served as a “spoiler” in that race.

In September, Fox announced he would seek the Democratic nomination this time around. Fox has been closely aligned with Rose on the city council in the long-running dispute over a propane distribution complex, proposed for construction in the Rigby Yard rail station.

In his emails to De Angelis, Rose did not mention Fox’s candidacy or a potential primary fight between the two. He focused solely on his belief that holding office as a partisan candidate might unduly influence commission activities.

In a series of eight emails sent to De Angelis between 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 13 and 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 15 – all sent under the subject line “CSS or State Rep” – Rose made it clear that he would not appoint De Angelis unless she either agreed not to run for state legislature, or agreed to resign her seat on the civil service commission, if elected.

“I need to hear definitively that you do not plan to run – at least for this election cycle, OK?” he said in one email.

“If you truly have no intention of running for state Legislature this election cycle, then please say so. If your answer is a definitive ‘no’ then I am happy to put forward the nomination as planned,” he wrote, in another.

“To my mind, partisan corruption in civil service oversight still resonates deeply in the American historical experience, and I am not willing to go there,” Rose reiterated, when De Angelis complained of feeling “harassed” by the insistence that she answer the question of her potential candidacy. “By appearances alone, this looks like truly partisan politics influencing the civil service – something that is anathema to the anti-corruption roots of progressive politics. I ask that you commit not to go there as well.”

When De Angelis did not respond after the first few emails, Rose tried one last time.

“This is your opportunity to acknowledge the concern I have expressed in this thread about your intentions to run for state office within months of this appointment, and to decide, forthrightly and with grace, whether you want this nomination or to maintain the option to run for state house this year,” he wrote.

With still no reply – De Anglis having checked out of the conversation by this point – Rose emailed Blake asking that he postpone the appointment.

After Blake realized the appointment could not come off the agenda, De Angelis appeared at the council meeting, emails in hand, to quote from Rose’s demands.

“I do not rattle easily but this has been very upsetting,” she said.

“This is the third time I’ve heard these emails read and I’m sickened more each time I hear it,” Morgan said, when it came time for the council to speak to the nomination. “This is clearly a quid pro quo equation.”

Fox interrupted for a point of order, saying on Rose’s behalf, “We’re having personal criticisms of a councilor who is not here.”

Rose was in Canada at the time, having previously announced he could not be at the session, hence his asking for postponement via email, rather than making that motion himself, at the time of the meeting.

However, Blake ruled such criticism was fair play. “Business does not stop when we’re absent from a meeting. I think the actions of Councilor Rose have precipitated this particular (line).”

Morgan then continued, saying, “I’ve never heard of this in my 10 years of public services, where somebody had to give something back to the appointer, in this instance a favor to a friend.”

Fox later moved for postponement of the appointment, a motion that failed to gain a second.

“What bothers me, of course, is that Councilor Morgan has once again attacked me,” Fox said. “He brought up emails and said this was a favor from a friend to me. I don’t know how it would be a favor to me, not appointing Ms. De Angelis to a board if she’s running for office. That makes no sense. But many things said here make no sense.”

However, Councilor Linda Cohen tried, indirectly, to focus Fox’s attention on the sense of Morgan’s statement, at least in the eyes of his peers when it came to Fox’s own candidacy.

“There is nothing in the civil service ordinance or in the (city) charter that prohibits someone from seeking elective office and being on the civil service commission,” she said. If that was the case, than we couldn’t have somebody serving on a nonpartisan board and running for a partisan seat, than we wouldn’t be able to have councilors serving on the city council and running for state representative, which is a partisan seat.”

Ultimately, the council voted 5-0 to appoint De Angelis to the commission, with each member noting her “impeccable” qualifications for the post, as a former councilor, mayor, committee chairman and union negotiator.

Blake said he normally would have honored a request from an absent councilor to postpone an agenda item, even making the motion himself.

“But in this particular case I am completely uncomfortable with the reason why Councilor Rose is requesting postponement,” Blake said. “To stall this for something that may or may not happen in the future is just poor government.”

Post-mortum

After the meeting, Rose said via email that, “There is no constitutional crisis here despite (Morgan’s) penchant for drama.

“I feel like this evolved into a proxy war between Rosemarie and Brad, or Claude and Brad, or someone other than me,” he said.

Rose also added that, in addition to concerns about a political candidate serving on a nonpartisan board, he was worried in ways not expressed to De Angelis during their email exchange.

“I wanted to give her the chance to be up front with me about (her potential legislative candidacy) and possibly get some assurance that she was not using this (civil service) position as primarily a springboard for her campaign,” he said.

De Angelis, meanwhile, said she is just happy to serve.

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