BENTON — For state Rep. David Cotta, it comes down to a key principle: “You can’t be your own boss.”

For Melissa Patterson, however, there’s an important distinction.

“I don’t mix the two — ever,” she said. “One job is one, and one is the other. There’s no conflict of interest.”

Patterson, 34 was elected last year to the three-member Benton Board of Selectmen and was re-elected last month to serve a second term. She is also a clerk at the Town Office, a position she’s held for 4 1/2 years, where she handles car registrations, mail and bills, accounts payable, photocopying and filing, and other office duties.

But this scenario may be untenable in the future, now that Cotta has proposed legislation, L.D. 1297, prohibiting an elected municipal officer from simultaneously working as a town employee.

Cotta — a China Republican representing District 55, which includes part of Benton — has introduced a bill that prevents a municipal officer from also serving as the same community’s employee, except for communities organized under a specific town manager plan.

If approved, the legislation proposes that any person in violation of the new law could serve out the remainder of the municipal officer’s term.

Although Patterson’s positions were brought to his attention by other citizens, Cotta said the bill is not intended to single-out Patterson, but rather “add clarity” to an issue of which there have been contradictory state and court rulings. Incredibly, Cotta said, there is no existing state law that specifically addresses the issue.

“Clearly, Ms. Patterson’s position represents an example cited in the legislation,” Cotta said. “But there’s no vendetta here. We’re here at the Legislature so when a situation comes up, to make sure it is clear and it is fair, because what we do affects all of us.”

The Maine Municipal Association has not taken a position on the proposed bill, but the organization’s policy committee is scheduled to discuss the legislation at its next monthly meeting on April 14, according to spokesman Eric Conrad.

Even so, association staff members have been discussing the bill and they have at least one concern.

“Small communities sometimes have a hard time finding people to run for office and to perform municipal roles,” Conrad said.

For example, Conrad said, would the legislation affect a selectman who is also a town firefighter who’s paid on a per-diem basis? Or, someone who is also a part-time animal-control officer?

Further muddling the matter are a pair of contradictory opinions — separated by 31 years — from the Maine Attorney General’s Office.

In an opinion written Feb. 8, 1980, Assistant Attorney General Paul Macri concluded that a selectman could not simultaneously be a town employee.

“In the situation of an employee and a selectman, it is clear that the selectman would have power over the employee in the areas of hiring, firing, and determining compensation,” Macri wrote. “Hence, we find that these two offices are incompatible.”

After Patterson learned of Cotta’s proposed legislation, she and First Selectman Ryan Liberty sought out guidance from the Attorney General’s Office.

Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner wrote an informal opinion March 10 saying the two positions do not constitute incompatible offices and there’s no legal barrier to Patterson serving in both positions.

Her letter also cites a 2008 Superior Court decision, Town of Harpswell vs. Wallace, which found a person could serve as a selectman and be a town transfer station employee at the same time. And even in cases where a conflict of interest might arise, the municipal officer could recuse himself from making decisions that affect his town job, the letter states.

Herbert Thompson, who ran against Patterson for the select board in the recent election and lost, said he and some other Benton residents have been concerned about Patterson’s dual roles since she began serving.

“It’s a clear issue of fairness; people don’t like the double-dipping,” Thompson said. “It’s a matter of principle. It has nothing to do with the personalities involved and it’s nothing against Ms. Patterson. This is public money, taxpayer money.”

Thompson is critical of the recent attorney general letter, saying it’s not an official opinion like the one written in 1980. He said he recently met with Gov. Paul LePage and is seeking an official legal opinion from Attorney General William Schneider.

“I’m in the hopes that Bill Schneider will write an opinion that will vacate Melissa Patterson as a town employee, though she can still serve as a selectman, and L.D. 1297 will clarify it,” he said.

Robert Morrissette said he, along with Thompson and Charles Kent Jr., who unsuccessfully ran against Patterson in the first race, paid for an attorney to write a legal opinion last year. The attorney concluded it was illegal to hold both positions, while Town Attorney Alton Stevens responded with an opinion that it was legal.

“So, basically, we still don’t know if it’s legal,” Morrisette said. “I’m still on the fence — is it, or not?”

Cotta said his proposed bill aims to settle that question.

“I have not had any resistance to the concept. It just clearly states: you can’t be your own boss,” Cotta said. “The same principle is carried down from state government, to counties, to municipalities, and exists another way in that we are asking for a series of checks and balances and qualifications. It makes sure there is oversight.”

Cotta said the legislation has not yet been referred to the Committee on State and Local Government and a public hearing hadn’t yet been scheduled.

Patterson said she plans to testify at such a hearing.

“They need to put a name to a face,” she said. “I ran for select board because I was interested in it. I thought I could make a difference. I thought I could be a benefit for the townspeople, knowing more and seeing more at the town office.”

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