WATERVILLE — Two residents Tuesday told city officials that they believe it is a conflict of interest for city councilors whose spouses or significant others receive money from the city to vote on a municipal and school budget and that the city’s policy regarding conflict of interest must be updated.

Comments by Gary Maheux and Julian Payne preceded the council’s 7-0 vote to create a resident-initiated budget task force to advise city councilors on upcoming budgets and help spread awareness about the city’s financial situation.

Maheux read aloud to councilors a prepared statement, saying it was a contentious budget season in which people expressed concern about the appearance of conflict regarding two councilors voting on the $37.6 million budget they approved last month.

Without naming names, Maheux clearly was referring to Council Chairman John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, and Dana Bushee, D-Ward 6. O’Donnell’s wife is a teacher in the school system, and Bushee is a Jobs for Maine Graduates teacher at Waterville Senior High School whose “significant other” is Parks and Recreation Director Matt Skehan. Bushee was a JMG teacher in Augusta last school year and just started in Waterville this year.

Bushee and O’Donnell, who has said he will not run for reelection in November, did not respond to the comments during the meeting. To a Facebook message sent to her during the meeting asking if she wanted to comment, Bushee responded: “I don’t have any comment.”

Maheux said he was not questioning anyone’s integrity.

“This issue is not personal,” he said. “This issue is about perception and removing all doubt of ethical conflicts.”

Cities including Bangor and Auburn have policies that implement strict ethical guidelines, while Waterville’s is only one paragraph, he said. Not naming O’Donnell, Maheux said a councilor before the budget vote last month asked that $250,000 be put back into the proposed school budget, even though councilors earlier had agreed not to do that. School officials said at the time that teachers would have to be laid off if more cuts were made to the proposal.

Payne urged city officials to form a panel to address conflict issues. He said the city of Auburn requires that people employed by the city or receiving money can not sit on the council, that teachers may work in the school or serve on the council, but not both, and councilors may not work in the school system for two years after leaving a post. He urged that Waterville adopt two principles: that councilors not receive money, in part or full, from any city department; and that people not sit on the council if they have immediate family members or significant others employed by the city.

City Solicitor William Lee was on vacation Tuesday but issued an opinion that a “councilor does not have a per se conflict in voting on the school budget because the councilor has some financial connection to the school department.” Councilors do not vote on specific items in the school budget, according to Lee.

“Having said that, it is possible a councilor might have some connection that would create a conflict,” Lee said in his opinion, which he emailed to City Manager Michael Roy. “Each situation is different. If a majority of the council felt a councilor had a conflict, then that councilor would be unable to vote.”

Roy said that, in essence, it is up to the council to decide if any councilor has a conflict. Lee, he said, determined there was no issue or conflict with any votes the council took on the budget, and Tuesday’s council agenda contained no items which could present a conflict of interest for some voting councilors.

The City Charter’s Code of Ethics says “No public official or employee of the City shall solicit or receive any pay, commission, money or thing of value, or derive any benefit, profit or advantage, directly or indirectly, from or by reason of any improvement, alteration or repair required by authority of the City, or any contract to which the City shall be a party, except compensation or salary as established for such official or employee.”

Maheux told councilors that next year’s budget process will involve tougher decisions and he referred to the city’s conflict of interest rules as “pitiful.”

“It creates a perception of paid lobbyists acting as councilors, advocating for a greater departmental share of the budget for personal monetary gain,” he said. “Councilors may also be perceived as being coerced by departmental heads for a greater allocation of funds, out of fear of personal monetary retribution. Like it or not, these public perceptions are real, destructive and have no place on the city council.”

Bangor’s policy, he said, mandates that no councilor shall take part in deliberation or vote on any agenda item for which he or a member of his immediate family has a financial or special interest, other than an interest held by the public generally.

“We’re already behind other leading cities,” Maheux said. “Failure to update the holes in the city’s code of ethics is irresponsible and a dereliction of duty that moves our controversy into next year’s budget season, casting doubt on the integrity of the entire budgeting process and opening yourselves up to unnecessary scrutiny.”

Payne, meanwhile, maintained that asking councilors to address concerns from within is a system void of checks and balances.

“By the time citizens get involved to police the council, irreparable harm to the council’s image has been done,” he said. “When a council becomes insular, it is akin to looking out of tinted glasses containing prisms.”

Before the vote, Planning Board Chairman Nick Champagne, who is a candidate for O’Donnell’s council seat, said he studied state law about conflict of interest and it is very vague and the issue needs to be looked at.

“It leaves a lot of open-ended questions,” he said.

He said if an appearance of conflict comes up on the Planning Board for him, he will recuse himself from voting on a particular issue. He challenged councilors to explain why they vote as they do.

“Perhaps that would alleviate a lot of the concern,” he said.

He also said that he was disappointed about the budget process and vowed that if he is elected to the council, he will “certainly respond to the person behind the podium because that’s why they’re here.” He was referring to residents who raised concerns about the high tax rate and the need to lower the budget.

O’Donnell asked Champagne if his father, Mark, also a Planning Board member, was still a teacher and if he (Nick Champagne) were elected to the council in November, would he recuse himself from voting on the budget.

“It’s something I would consider,” Champagne said.

Payne was part of an effort to gather petition signatures that would force the city to re-open the city budget because it would be too costly for many residents to support. Such a high tax rate, they said, would force people, particularly those on fixed incomes, to choose between buying food or prescription drugs. The high tax rate also would drive people to sell their homes and move out of the city, they said. Many taxpayers faced significant increases in their tax bills, in part, because the city underwent a revaluation that shifted the taxes from commercial real estate to residential. With input from petitioners and others, the council ultimately approved a $37.6 million budget that decreased the tax rate from $27.80 per $1,000 worth of valuation to $22.80.

Former City Councilor Eliza Mathias created the idea of the budget task force. She said she paid attention to recent budget issues and proposed the task force to evaluate the budget and focus on a proactive rather than a reactive view.

She said anyone interested in serving on the task force should contact her.

Waterville resident Tom Savinelli urged Mathias and the city to avoid a top-heavy committee of politicians and businesspeople.

“You need regular people to equalize whatever you put on that committee,” Savinelli said, adding that the panel needs more citizen-input and less politician input.

Mathias said she definitely encourages public participation.

“I think it’s important to have productive discussions from all aspects of the community,” she said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

 

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