CHINA — Arguments over whether publicly-elected municipal officials here should be allowed to vote on budget recommendations that they benefit from are demonstrating the difficulty of handling conflicts-of-interest concerns in a small town.

Meanwhile, the town’s attorney thinks the issue boils down to “a very simple, unfortunate, misguided power struggle.”

China selectmen this week were split — with about half the board recusing themselves — over whether to declare that three members of the town’s budget committee had a conflict of interest that would require them to refrain from discussing and voting on a budget line for firefighter stipends. Without a majority, the motion made Tuesday night to assert that those members have a conflict of interest failed, and they will be able to participate in recommending a dollar value for the firefighter stipend allocation when the budget process gets underway in the coming weeks.

The China Select Board’s chairman, Ron Breton, argued that Budget Committee chairman Bob Batteese and members Kevin Maroon and Thomas Rumpf — who are China firefighters or have immediate family members who are China firefighters — should not have a bearing on the stipend line because it affects their own finances. Town Manager Dennis Heath has expressed this belief in the past as well.

China Town Manager Dennis Heath, at his desk at the China town office in August 2018. Morning Sentinel file photo by Michael G. Seamans

“It’s $40,000, and I don’t consider that a small portion of the budget,” Breton said, regarding the current voter-approved stipend sum for three volunteer fire departments and one rescue department. “The issue is not how much it is. It is, whether it is minuscule or not, is there a conflict of interest for those three members of the budget committee?”

The vote on conflicts of interest is the latest episode in a longstanding dispute over the regulation of volunteer firefighter stipends, which were first introduced in 2017 to help boost involvement.

Heath and China town attorney Amanda Meader cited the state’s conflict of interest statute —and China’s stricter municipal code of ethics — as legal support for the stance Breton expressed.

“No appointed or elected official shall participate in the deliberation or vote, or otherwise take part in the decision making process, on any other agenda item before the town board, committee or other body of which he or she is a member, in which he or she or a member of his or her immediate family has a financial or special interest, other than an interest shared by the public generally,” according to China’s Administrative Code of Ethics, last updated in 2015.

State law adds that municipal officials should avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest as well.

Maine’s statute defines a financial interest as an individual having at least 10% interest in the organization in question. China’s code strikes out that minimum and adds that a “special interest,” which must also be disclosed, occurs when the individual receives “a value … which is not shared by the general public.” Meader — as well as Waterville’s and Winslow’s attorney William A. Lee III — said that under Maine’s home rule policy, towns are allowed to adopt regulations that are stricter than state law.

During Tuesday’s conversation, Batteese, chairman of the budget committee, pointed out a perceived double-standard. Last year, the Select Board unanimously voted to recommend increasing their own stipends from $1,000 to $1,800 apiece to be more consistent with the sums paid out by neighboring communities, which average $1,920 per selectman in towns of a similar size, according to an analysis by Heath. While the near-doubling ultimately passed at Town Meeting, the budget committee voted 1-5 against the recommendation.

Wayne Chadwick is the only sitting selectman who was not in office during last year’s vote to increase their compensation, though he was a member of the budget committee at the time.

Two of the town’s three volunteer fire chiefs, Richard Morse of South China and Bill Van Wickler of Weeks Mills, were in the audience Tuesday for the first time in months. Tim Theriault, the third fire chief (China Village) and a state representative, was unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting because he was at Gov. Janet Mills’ State of the State address. They did not weigh in on the issue of conflict of interest.

Heath was also not present Tuesday because of an injury but phoned in for a portion of the meeting and was watching a live stream of the meeting from home, he said.

 

THE VOTE

The 1-1 decision about the budget committee members came after a tense, prolonged discussion in the Selectmen’s chambers Tuesday night during which several selectmen expressed discomfort with the direction Breton was guiding the conversation. Breton voted in favor of declaring that the budget committee members have conflicts of interest, rookie selectman Chadwick voted against it and selectwomen Donna Mills-Stevens and Irene Belanger abstained, saying they were confused by the wording of Breton’s motion.

I’m very broken on how to proceed with this,” Mills-Stevens said. “I’m not trying to be difficult — we want it to work; we want it to be fair. But we haven’t even had a discussion about the budget yet.”

To avoid repeating this year’s standoff over stipends — and the liability Heath is concerned about, as the town treasurer, is the fire departments do not provide itemization of how stipend funds are distributed, which they voiced that they do not have an intention of doing — Heath proposed moving the volunteer firefighter stipend allocations away from the department budget and into a less regulated “Community Support Services” section of the town budget. That section includes allocations to groups such as Maine Rivers, the Town Line community newspaper, courtesy boat inspectors and historical buildings and libraries in China. Mills-Stevens and Chadwick said that if the money intended for stipends is moved here, they cannot guarantee that those funds will actually be used for stipends. Mills-Stevens used that rationale in saying she cannot make a decision on conflicts of interest because “I don’t personally know how they benefit.”

Prior to the Select Board vote, Breton asked members of the budget committee with connections to the fire departments and who were present at Tuesday’s meeting to declare their own conflict of interest, if they felt it was necessary. Breton asked the same question, to no avail, at the previous selectmen’s meeting on Jan. 6.

“You’ve got the cart before the horse, and all I’ll declare is that I’ve been a member of the fire department since 1984 and I’ve been budget committee chair since 1995,” Batteese said Tuesday. “I’m much more interested in keeping the taxes down than I am in the few dollars that I get.”

Bill Van Wickler, left, fire chief of Weeks Mills Volunteer Fire Department in China, questions the select board over conditions for disbursing stipend funds going forward at a meeting Tuesday evening. Dick Morse, far right, chief of the South China Volunteer Fire Department, also raised questions at Tuesday’s meeting, the first in several months that any fire chief has attended. Morning Sentinel photo by Meg Robbins

 

SELECTMEN IMMUNE TO SCRUTINY?

Meader, China’s town attorney, noted that the situation is particularly difficult to work through when the individuals whose alleged conflicts of interest are being scrutinized are life-saving public servants who do essential work for the community for a nominal reward, rather than individuals whose intentions seem more plainly nefarious. Still, she said, it comes down to following the law, and that court decisions around the issue, state law and town codes “couldn’t be any clearer.”

“Really I think what we have is a very simple, unfortunate, misguided power struggle,” Meader told the Morning Sentinel. “It’s a shame. It’s just a shame. It’s one-sided because the town manager is just trying to follow the law. Dennis (Heath) is the straightest shooter you could ever meet. The man just wants to follow the law — he used to be a municipal judge. This isn’t about the (firemen) — they’re honorable men doing honorable work. This is about process, transparency, the law and small-d democracy. This is about not acting like Washington right now. This might be over $10 an hour, but that’s not the point.”

Meader acknowledged that selectmen voting on their own stipend recommendations is problematic but said Tuesday that because the select board is the only body with the authority to send the budget to the town, it presents a roadblock.

“There’s no mechanism to put the budget through to the voters without the select board approving it because they are the body that puts it through to the voters,” Meader said. “It’s a strange and an interesting question and one I would like to chat with my municipal colleagues about. There are so many things that the laws can’t account for, and I think this is one of those really interesting circumstances. The check and balance here is that if a select board proposed an exorbitant raise, stipend or fee, that the Town Meeting would absolutely shut that down.”

After an inquiry from the Morning Sentinel, Meader said it might be possible for the selectmen to decline to make a recommendation on a specific article regarding their own stipends but still vote to send the overall budget through to townspeople for a vote, with only a recommendation from the budget committee on an article concerning selectmen’s stipend figures.

Heath said he was also not sure about whether that would be possible.

“Very interesting question,” he wrote in an email. “I will have to research that one. My gut says, ‘Maybe,’ but I want to be sure.”

Heath said that the positioning of the selectmen’s proposed stipend increase in a separate article (Article 23 in the 2019-2020 warrant), rather than coupled under the “Boards and Committees” category of the budget, dodged any conflict of interest issue last year.

“Since State statutes place the authority for placing items on the warrant on the Select Board, and the Warrant only included the question of whether the Town wanted to approve the increase, the Select Board took the right approach by not including it in a budget article,” Heath told the Morning Sentinel in an email.  “As a separate question, it made it clear the Select Board was not making a budget recommendation.

“It’s important to make the distinction that #23 is a question that is outside the budget,” Heath added. “Notice it asks if the amount needed to increase the stipends can be raised and or appropriated in addition to what is already in the budget. The reason is that the article could fail, and it would not affect the budget. Had the SB insisted on including the amount in the budget, that would have been a clear conflict of interest issue.”

Firefighter stipends, on the other hand, were coupled under “Fire and Rescue Services,” Article 9, which also included the groups’ operational budgets, rather than being explicitly separated in their own article and made clear to the public.

The Select Board will again be tasked with recommending a value for their own stipends in the upcoming 2020-2021 budget, though without a proposed increase or decrease to highlight, the figure will fall under the general “Boards and Committees” category of the budget and article of the warrant.

 

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST IN SMALL TOWNS

Identifying conflicts of interest can become thorny in small towns where many people wear many hats — and especially when those small towns, like China, have local conflict of interest policies that are more restrictive than the state’s.

Lee, the attorney for neighboring towns, said that while situations like this are difficult, they are also par for the course.

“Typically if a town wants to have a stricter code, it can,” Lee said, citing Maine’s home rule policy. “But if I were being asked to look at a particular (conflict of interest) ordinance, I’d be looking at: how many people are you going to eliminate from the process? How many are you going to allow to vote and participate? I’d be asking the community to look at the impact it’s going to have and make sure you’re not eliminating too many people from being able to vote and being able to run for office.

“I typically represent larger communities, so it’s not as much of an issue,” he said. “Winslow has 7,500 people, Fairfield is about the same and Waterville has about 16,500 — you usually don’t have a problem having enough people to run the government, but if you’re one of the communities that has 1,500 people, it could be a different story. It’s certainly an interesting question.”

China has a population of 4,266, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate in 2017.

China residents made it clear that they supported compensating firefighters at the last Town Meeting — they voted to appropriate $7,000 more for firefighter stipends specifically than even the Budget Committee, with its firefighter members, recommended. But even when the court of public opinion appears to lean a certain way on an issue, Meader stressed that the law is designed to protect even the one person who may silently be concerned about a conflict of interest — if not in the current situation, then by the precedent it sets.

“The statute contains that provision (about the appearance of a conflict of interest) to account for even just the one member of the public who may have that concern,” Meader said. “I think we can’t assume that there aren’t folks who aren’t concerned generally. I don’t mean to speak on behalf of any of these individuals, but conceptually, the state statute makes the reasonable assumption that there will always be someone who is concerned.

“I can’t help but go back to national politics,” she added, referencing President Donald Trump’s current impeachment trial. “The Democrats have a problem and the Republicans have no problem in terms of a perception of wrongdoing.”

As part of the ongoing conversation about conflicts of interest on the budget committee, individuals had expressed concern that by potentially requiring three of six members of the committee to not discuss or vote on an issue, it would threaten the board’s ability to meet quorum (four people) and its ability to decide on the issue at all. On Tuesday, the Select Board appointed a seventh budget committee member, Trishea Story, who does not have an affiliation with the fire departments, to its vacant seventh seat.

Even if she had not been appointed, Lee said: “If you have a quorum necessary to meet the minimum meeting requirements, the fact that some of them recuse themselves doesn’t change that the (board) has quorum.”

The select board will meet for its first budget workshop of the season Jan. 27 from 5-8 p.m., earlier than the initially scheduled 6:30 p.m. start time. The budget committee is due to meet for its first workshop Jan. 30 at 7 p.m.

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