OAKLAND — A lawyer hired by the town has issued an opinion that it may be appropriate for Town Councilor David Groder to abstain from voting on certain requests involving the Fire Department because he is a volunteer on-call first responder.

David Groder Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal file

But local and state rules do not prohibit him from being both a town councilor and volunteer rescue worker, according to Matt Tarasevich, of the firm Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer and Nelson, P.A. of Portland.

Town Manager Kelly Pinney-Michaud handed out copies of Tarasevich’s opinion to the public at Wednesday night’s council meeting. Councilors decided at a meeting Feb. 14 to seek the legal opinion after Kelly Roderick, a member of the town’s Budget Advisory Committee, raised the issue. Groder and other town councilors voted Jan. 17 to approve a recommendation by fire Chief David Coughlin to give four career firefighters $1 stipends per hour and be promoted to lieutenants.

Groder, a paramedic who responds only if called for emergencies, was promoted to assistant or deputy chief in title only as part of that vote and did not receive a raise. Councilor Don Borman was the lone dissenter, saying he thought it better to consider raises as part of the town budget process because more people are involved in the discussion.

Tarasevich said in his two-page opinion dated Feb. 27 that the town’s ethics ordinance includes restrictions and ethical guidelines for councilors with regard to votes when they have either a defined or special interest in a matter that may come before the council.

Tarasevich wrote that the councilor “should, if they have any potential or actual financial or special interests in the matter before the council, disclose that information to the entire council so that the council can determine if there is a conflict of interest that would preclude the specific councilor from participation in a vote.”


He also said Maine law says municipal officials “shall attempt to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest by disclosure and by abstention.”

It did not appear Groder had a financial interest in the vote, he said, though there may arguably have been a special interest in his voting to increase the pay of other members of the Fire Department in which he serves as volunteer deputy chief.

“For that reason, disclosure and abstention from the vote may have been appropriate,” Tarasevich wrote.

On Feb. 14, the council agenda included an item for Groder to consider rescinding the vote he took Jan. 17 on the firefighter stipend issue. He opted not to rescind his vote.

Pinney-Michaud said after doing more research, she had concluded Groder did not have to rescind his vote because he had not received a raise as part of the vote, he is not a scheduled town employee and he is paid only on an emergency call basis. It would be detrimental to the town if Groder were stopped from being a responder, she said.

Roderick argued Wednesday night, however, that Groder is scheduled to work on weekends, but Groder said that, as a volunteer, he does not get paid for an eight-hour shift. He receives $18 per call, he said.


Resident Jon Cox said he thought a councilor should abstain from voting if that councilor is involved in a department for which he works or has some other interest in a matter.

Roderick noted at the Feb. 14 meeting that the town charter stipulates a councilor “shall hold no office of emolument or profit under the Town Charter or ordinance.” Tarasevich, in his opinion, said the charter doesn’t define “office of emolument or profit,” but generally, it means holding a public office, and in Oakland’s case, that would be a town manager, health officer, road commissioner and the like. Maine law refers to positions for which one is sworn in or elected, and not employment positions, according to Tarasevich.

Groder also is the Augusta fire chief, and that is a paid, full-time position.

He said after the meeting that he will consider whether to abstain from voting on items involving the Fire Department on a case-by-case basis. If it appears he may have a special or financial interest in a particular item, he can turn to the other councilors to ask what they think and if there’s a question, Groder said he would step out.

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