2017-12-15 / Front Page

Cape tackles conflicts

By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH – The town found itself in a unfamiliar position after last month’s election when Chris Straw was elected to the Cape Elizabeth Town Council and his wife Hope Straw to the Cape Elizabeth Board of Education. A day after the election, Chris Straw emailed then-council Chairman Jamie Garvin, Town Manager Matt Sturgis and Town Clerk Debra Lane, and carbon copied other town councilors, with a question about whether he could serve on the council while his wife served on the school board or if it would be a conflict of interest. Furthermore, he wondered if he could “participate and vote on issues relating to the school budget” while Hope Straw is on the school board.

Sturgis said the election put the town in “uncharted territory” in terms of spouses being elected to two governing bodies and the advise of the town’s attorney Thomas Leahy was solicited.

Acting on the advise of Leahy, who in a Nov. 9 letter to Sturgis said “there is nothing in the town charter which would disqualify Mr. Straw from serving on the town council while his spouse serves on the school board, the town council determined Dec. 11 that Straw could serve on the town council.

The second question, according to Leahy, is “less clear cut.”

“We do not believe the situation creates a true pecuniary conflict under state law as the approval or disapproval of the school budget by the town council would not result in a financial gain or loss to the town council member or school board member,” Leahy wrote. “The question in our view is would Mr. Straw’s participation in deliberations and then voting on accepting or rejecting the presented school budget be seen by others as having the appearance of conflict. Would other council members, for example, those opposed to a presented school budget, feel he voted for a school budget for which his spouse had vocally advocated, due to her influence over him as a spouse?”

Leahy said it does not necessarily rise to a conflict of interest or bias, but recommends when a school budget is presented to the council, Straw remind the council of his familial connection to the school board and “state whether he feels he has a conflict” before the council decides if he should proceed in the deliberation or vote.

With Straw recused from the discussion, his fellow counselors decided to also follow Leahy’s advise and deal with the second part of the concern when budget deliberations begin.

Councilor Sara Lennon said the council may be wise to treat this situation like it did when former councilor Jim Walsh served on the council while his wife was employed by the school department as a teacher.

“We would discuss it the night of the vote and my recollection was some years he would recuse himself and some years he wouldn’t,” Lennon said.

Whether Straw could serve on the council or participate in school budget debate and voting was not the only time conflicts of interest came up during the meeting, which stretched close to four hours. Straw asked fellow councilors a number of times to disclose potential or perceived conflicts of interest throughout the meeting, including during the appointment of Garvin as finance committee chairman; Sara Lennon as appointments chairman; the continued service of Councilor Caitlin Jordan on the harbors committee and whether councilors who have donated to the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust had a conflict in discussing the land trust’s request for $281,666 in town funding toward the $845,000 price tag for the trust to purchase nearly 62 acres that abut Robinson Woods Preserve.

Straw said he wanted to clear up any conflicts of interest Garvin and Lennon had regarding relationships with residents in the Surfside Avenue neighborhood before he could fully support them in the aforementioned positions and wanted to ensure Jordan’s familial connections to commercial fishermen wouldn’t impact her work on the committee and that previous contributions to the land trust wouldn’t impact how the funding request plays out. Straw said getting clarification on those items would help him “rebuild his well of trust” with town council members.

Council Chairman Jessica Sullivan said Straw was in his right to ask such questions, but didn’t see the value in doing so at Monday’s meeting.

“I support your right to bring these issues up. I just ask they take place at a different time, but not at this meeting,” she said.

Garvin said he would no have a conflict of interest in performing the role of finance committee chairman and Lennon said the same about her leadership on the appointments committee.

“My integrity is above reproach and I welcome any discussion that challenges that,” Garvin said.

Jordan said while many of her family members are commercial fishermen and she herself has a commercial fishing license, but doesn’t actively use it, she can remain impartial throughout her work on the harbors committee, because the charge of the committee goes well beyond commercial fishing.

“I do have these connections, but I am not conflicted,” she said.

The council discussed whether councilors who had given to the land trust should be recused from the discussion regarding sending the land trust’s funding request to workshop and in the end, determined there were no conflicts of interest.

The conflict of interest provision came up at the end of the meeting during the liquor license and special amusement renewal of Purpoodock Club, where Sullivan and Garvin’s in-laws are members and Jordan’s family does occasional business with. The council decided there wasn’t a conflict and they were allowed to vote on the matter.

According to town council rules, town councilors are required to disclose any potential conflicts of interest before debate begins on an item. “The council member shall briefly explain their reason why they believe they may have a conflict of interest … and the balance of the town council members after reviewing applicable statutes shall by majority vote determine if the member has a conflict.” If a conflict of interest is determined, the councilor is asked to leave the council table until the matter is addressed.

The same process plays out if a councilor feels one of his or her colleagues has a conflict of interest on a council item.

At its Dec. 12 meeting, school board members discussed its own conflict of interest policy regarding Hope Straw. According to board policy, a spouse of a board member cannot be employed in the school system, but makes no mention of how it is handled for other offices or elected positions.

Conflicts of interest is something, the council agreed to look into in more detail, potentially beginning with a Dec. 14 workshop session when the council was expected to meet with legal counsel to discuss Freedom of Information Act statutes, as well as discuss 2018 town goals and hear an update from Sturgis about the hiring of a Fort Williams Park manager.

Straw said the code of ethics, which each member of the council signed Dec. 11, offers a slightly different, more in-depth, definition of what a conflict of interest is. The code of ethics reads, “all councilors must ensure that their official actions are not intended to create actual or the potential for personal or financial gain, either directly or indirectly, for themselves, family members, personal friends or third parties.” Examples include financial gain from companies or businesses that contract with the town; family members of personal friends who work with such a company, recommending a company or service provider in which the councilor has a financial interest in, soliciting or receiving money, donations or gifts or “discussing and voting (except town-wide votes) on town ordinances, policies, or plans that directly or indirectly result in financial benefit for the councilor, personal friends of councilor’s employer.”

The council will review including some of that conflict of interest language in its official rules at its January meeting.

Aside from discussing conflicts of interest, the council authorized to expend $2,500 from the special committees account and have Sturgis enter into an agreement with Good Group Decisions to facilitate further discussions on paper streets at Atlantic Place and Surfside Avenue. The sessions could take place in early February, but the timing is still being worked out. The council had set a deadline of March for an update about the sessions.

Being the first meeting in the new council year, the group reappointed a number of residents or in some cases, named new individuals to expiring terms on the board of assessment review, community services committee, conservation committee, firing range committee, Fort Williams Park committee, personnel appeals board, planning board, recycling committee, Riverside Cemetery committee, Thomas Memorial Library committee and board of zoning appeals.

Most of the nominations passed with little to no discussion, except for how to fill the term of planning board member Peter Curry, which generated ample debate about whether he should be able to serve on both the planning board and comprehensive plan committee. Straw said giving Curry a fourth term on the board runs counter to the spirit of having turnover on boards and would rather see Timothy Lunney, a former planner by trade, in that position.

Curry was evidently appointed to the comprehensive plan committee to fill a citizen slot with the understanding his term on the planning board was coming to an end at the end of the year. He was, however, unanimously appointed to another term on the planning board by the appointments committee.

Despite Lunney’s qualifications and the issue with the Curry’s two appointments, Sullivan said she stood by the nominations.

Lennon said Straw brought up some good points, but “I don’t know what we can do at this point.”

Although reappointing Curry gave him “pause,” Garvin ended up joining his councilors in extending Curry’s term on the planning board.

Garvin said if the council does in the future decide there is an issue with Curry’s continued service on both the planning board and comprehensive plan committee, they can speak with Curry about the situation and which body he would want to serve on.

Tim Thompson, chairman of the comprehensive plan committee said Curry is a “invaluable member of our community.”

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at 282-4337, ext. 237.

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