CAPE ELIZABETH — A divided Town Council has decided to allow Councilor Chris Straw to take part in school budget discussions despite questions about the potential for bias because his wife serves on the School Board.

The potential conflict came up during an April 12 meeting of the council and board, but was left unresolved at the time. Council Chairwoman Jessica Sullivan raised the question again last week before the School Board presented its $25.6 million fiscal year 2019 budget to the council.

In the end, Sullivan’s motion to recuse Straw from school budget deliberations failed by a vote of 4-2. Councilor Jamie Garvin, who was leading the meeting as Finance Committee chairman, also voted in favor of the recusal. Straw abstained.

After Chris and Hope Straw were elected to their respective positions last November, Chris Straw sought legal advice to confirm that there was no apparent conflict of interest because Hope Straw is not paid to be on the School Board.

Town attorney Thomas Leahy said in December that there is nothing in the Town Charter that would disqualify the Straws from serving simultaneously on the council and School Board, but he said voting on the school budget was less clearcut.

Leahy advised Chris Straw to disclose his position when the budget is presented, leaving it up to the council to decide if there is an appearance of a conflict or bias and if a recusal is necessary.

Sullivan said her concern was about “bias.”

What continued to concern Sullivan, she said, is that before his election, Chris Straw campaigned in favor of the town accepting paper streets and, after being elected, recused himself from discussions on the matter because he knows people whose homes abut one of the paper streets in question.

“I think probably you know your wife much better than people that abut the paper street and (she) is involved in crafting and advocating for an over $25 million budget,” Sullivan said. “Aren’t you using a different standard when you are not recusing yourself from the school budget discussion?”

Straw denied having a bias about the school budget.

“I’m open to persuasion, so I say I’m not biased,” Straw said. “Furthermore, I’ve never said anything like I’m going to vote for … or against the school budget no matter what.”

Straw said he recused himself from the earlier discussions only because he thought it was required by the council’s rules and code of ethics at the time. Council guidelines have since been amended to more accurately define what’s considered a conflict of interest, Straw said.

Further, he said being married to a member of the School Board doesn’t pose any more of a conflict of interest than having kids in the school system or being a taxpayer.

Councilor Sara Lennon agreed, saying that having kids in the schools “could potentially be seen as far more bias than having your spouse (on the School Board). … That they’re married to me is virtually irrelevant. … I have zero concerns.”

Councilor Penny Jordan also said she was confident in Straw’s ability to remain objective in the matter.

Jocelyn Van Saun can be contacted at 781-3661, ext. 183, or at:

[email protected] Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Read this story in The Forecaster.

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