An elementary school educational technician who won election to the Gorham Town Council last month is fighting back against councilors who are preventing her from taking office because they believe her job as a school employee could result in conflicts of interest.

The Maine Education Association, the state teachers’ union, filed a lawsuit last week in Cumberland County Superior Court on behalf of Janet Kuech, an ed tech at Narraganset Elementary School who was elected to the Gorham Town Council in a six-way race for three seats in November.

Members of the council have refused to seat Kuech – going against their attorney’s advice and citing her job as a public school employee as a conflict of interest – and have announced a decision to hold a special election in March to fill the seat she won.

The Town Council has the final say over the school budget in Gorham, as is the case in most single-town school districts, while the school committee oversees day-to-day school functions and the salaries of employees.

“I ran to be on the town council in my hometown because I love Gorham, I love our schools, and want to represent the people in this great town,” Kuech said in a statement issued through the association.

“I was ecstatic when I won and am excited to serve – but now as the current town council tries to stifle the voice of the voters and disqualify me – I’m beyond disheartened. Ignoring the outcome of a valid election is certainly not how we teach civics.”

Such conflicts over public school employees serving on, or attempting to serve on, local government boards are rare, say officials with the education association and the Maine Municipal Association, which advises local government agencies in Maine.

However, the issue has come up a handful of times in recent years. In August, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine filed a federal lawsuit challenging a charter amendment in Yarmouth prohibiting municipal or school employees from serving on the Town Council.

In 2018, a Falmouth High School science teacher expressed dissatisfaction with a town attorney’s opinion that his candidacy for the Town Council could be a conflict of interest.

And in 2016, residents in Waterville raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest about two Waterville councilors, one whose wife was a teacher in the city school system and another who worked as a Jobs for Maine Graduates teacher.

State law requires that elected municipal officials be residents of Maine, citizens of the United States and at least 18 years old. Officials also are required to disclose conflicts of interest or abstain from voting when conflicts exist.

There is nothing in state law prohibiting school employees from serving as elected officials. However, some municipal charters are more restrictive, said Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association.

The Gorham Town Council has contended that a provision in the charter saying councilors “shall hold no office of emolument or profit under the Town Charter or Ordinances” should be interpreted so that no school or town employees can hold elective office.

The lawsuit filed last week, however, argues the town is violating Kuech’s constitutional rights, as well as those of voters, by denying her the right to fully participate in the political process and failing to execute the will of the voters who elected her.

“As educators we teach our students to use their voices and speak up for what they believe in and in this case it’s the educators who are using our voices to speak up in favor of democracy,” Maine Education Association President Grace Leavitt said in a statement. “We cannot sit idly by and watch someone try and steal an election away from an educator who has served her students for decades and has now won the right to serve her community.

“MEA will go to great lengths to protect our democratic values in this state and hopes the courts act quickly and allow Janet to serve in the role she clearly deserves.”

Kuech, who has held her job as an ed tech in Gorham since 2001, was elected to the council seat in November.

Shortly after, the council held a special meeting to determine whether she met the qualifications to serve. The town charter says the council has the right to “judge the election and qualifications of its members.”

At the meeting, the town’s attorney, Mark Bower, recommended the charter not be interpreted so broadly as to exclude school employees from holding office, and said instead that only officers of the town such as the town manager, police chief or town clerk would be excluded from serving.

Some councilors, however, disagreed with the guidance and a motion to seat Kuech failed on grounds the charter was meant to exclude all town employees, not just officers, from running for office and that serving on the council would be an inherent conflict of interest for Kuech as a school employee.

Town Council Chair Suzanne Phillips did not respond to a phone call or email seeking comment Monday. Although Bower, the town attorney, is listed as the defense on the lawsuit, he said he would not be representing the town on the issue.

“I’m disappointed,” Councilor James Hager Jr. said. “The point going forward is that while Ms. Kuech might have good intentions to serve now, I don’t expect people moving forward to have the same good intentions and the balance of power could shift.”

Hager, whose son works for the business office of the Gorham School Department, said he makes a point of disclosing that information when it comes time to vote on the school budget and then the council decides if there is a conflict of interest.

“Only the council decides whether I remain seated for that item, and the council votes on that issue by itself,” he said in an email.

If a majority of board members were school employees who did need to recuse themselves it could result in a lack of a quorum when it comes time for the council to vote on the school budget, he said.

“If she were to resign her employment position I’m guessing she would be welcome with open arms,” Hager said.

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 1:47 p.m. on Dec. 17, 2019, to clarify that Councilor James Hager Jr. would leave the decision to his fellow councilors on whether a conflict exists for him on a particular vote. 

 

 

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