Maine’s conflict of interest statutes fail to protect municipalities from the negative implications caused by the perception of conflict, which is real and destructive. Municipalitiess across Maine have implemented tighter ethics policies inoculating themselves from perceived conflicts of interest, realizing that protecting their city’s or town’s image is paramount to economic development. Waterville’s ethics policy dates back to the Stone Age, leaving the city vulnerable to ethical breaches created by weaknesses in state law.

During last summer’s contentious budget season, Waterville residents were concerned about biases that appeared to be influencing budgeting decisions because councilors or their significant others received full or partial income from the $38 million city and school budget.

These councilors were allowed to participate in budget negotiations and advocate for the department from which they or their significant other receive income and health benefits. In the meantime, $750,000 in cuts were expected. One councilor tried to reinstate $250,000 into the department employing his spouse, where one week earlier eight layoffs were threatened. This incident opened a Pandora’s box, displaying the ugliness of perceived conflict, while being a wake-up call for tightening our conflict of interest policy, which is only one paragraph.

The notion that most reasonable councilors can remain impartial when their budgeting decision may result in their layoff or the layoff of their significant other as well as furlough days, or reduce their compensation package does not pass the straight-face test.

This issue is not about honesty, nor am I questioning the integrity of city officials. It’s about removing reasonable doubts of ethical conflicts, whether intentional or unintentional, as perceived by the residents. Trust is easier lost than earned; this matter is about the city regaining the trust of residents who have lost faith in city government.

It appears our policy allows Waterville school principals or their spouses to sit on the City Council and be seated at the budget table with voting rights, while the administration and school board glare from the audience. How can any reasonable person not perceive this as conflict? In the meantime, municipal employees cannot serve on the council because of conflicts.

We’re all humans with self-preservation biases. By allowing councilors who have a personal financial interest in the allocation of funds the ability to deliberate and vote on the budget without viewing this as a conflict of interest, compromises the integrity of the entire council body and tarnishes our city’s image. This creates suspicion and places a dark moral cloud over the entire budgeting process; remember, the City Council is the last governing body voting on the city and school budget.

It’s more than admirable for councilors to serve as board members of nonprofits, such as Waterville Main Street. However, if the councilor uses their entrusted position and votes to donate city monies to benefit their nonprofit, how is this perceived? In addition, how do residents perceive a councilor voting on an agenda item that is promoted and partially funded by their private employer, especially when tax dollars are involved? Public perception can be damaging and illustrates the necessity for a stronger ethics policy that protects the city’s image from these legal gray areas.

Our success will only occur when the residents regain faith in our local government. It’s time to move into the 21st century and become the standard bearer with our code of ethics, not the city that has fallen behind.

For the greater good of Waterville, it’s essential that our ethics committee fabricate a comprehensive policy, prohibiting councilors or their significant others from receiving full or partial incomes from the city and school budget, so that all perceived conflict involving funding is eliminated. Anything short of this would be ineffective and a missed opportunity that moves our ethical dilemma into the next budget season, casting doubt on the integrity of the entire budgeting process and inviting further scrutiny.

Opponents of policy changes claim we all have dual-role conflicts and that all politicians are trustworthy. Interesting, but when departmental incomes lead directly to elected officials or their significant others, or when councilors advocate that tax dollars fund their nonprofits, it then becomes about the conflicting roles of serving two masters, sometimes with opposing objectives.

It’s the brutal clashing of objectives that expose the black-and-white conflicts, no longer hidden under the radar. With 16,000 residents, I’m confident there are qualified candidates willing to run for office, free from financial conflicts.

Gary Maheux lives in Waterville.

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