Rockport Select Board Chairman Robert Duke said he might not seek reelection when his term expires in June.

“I’ve been frankly on the fence as to whether I want to run or not,” Duke said April 6.

Rockport resident Chris Shrum said April 5 that Duke and Select Board member Tom Farley have been acting in violation of the town charter’s provisions on conflict of interest and the decision-making process.

Duke said a proposed change to the charter, to be discussed when the board meets Monday, April 12, would remove that obstacle, but he still might leave the board.

Article II, Section 2 of the Rockport charter states the following:

“Select Board members shall not hold any other compensated town office or position of employment and shall not have business relationships with the town for which they receive compensation.”

“In looking at some of the board members, it’s clear that two of them have had contracts with the town to provide goods or services while they were on the Select Board,” Shrum said.

Select Board member Tom Farley said April 6 that he is an employee and shareholder of Farley & Son Landscaping Inc. He said he was appointed to the Select Board in June 2008, after receiving 14 write-in votes in a municipal election.

“I’m a select person, not for Farley & Son, but for the good of the town,” he said. “I stress competitive bidding for everything.”

The current fiscal year is the first year of a three-year, competitively bid, contract that Farley & Son has with the town of Rockport, according to Finance Director Virginia Lindsey. The contract, worth $230,906 and divided evenly among the three years, is for mowing at the town office and public safety buildings, as well as the town’s cemeteries and parks.

Duke said he had been unaware of the prohibition against town officials doing business with the town, but he recused himself from the authorizing vote when the Select Board approved a $6,135 contract for the opera house in December 2008.

“I should have been aware,” Duke said. “I was part of putting the charter together.”

Duke owns Floor Magic & Tile in Rockport and has done several jobs for the town. Work at the opera house and the harbormaster’s office has totaled $7,171 since late 2008. Lindsey said that included smaller payments to Floor Magic that were approved by department heads Steve Beveridge and Abbie Leonard.

“The real issue is the definition of a business relationship,” Farley said.

The charter defines conflict of interest as “having a direct or indirect stake, or by reason of ownership of stock in any corporation, in any contract with the town, by an officer, director, partner, associate, employee or stockholder of a private corporation, business or other economic entity, which is making an application to a town board, and who is directly or indirectly the owner of at least 10 percent of the stock of the private corporation or owns at least a 10 percent interest in the business or other economic entity.”

It further states that it is a violation if a “town official or employee is placed in a situation of temptation to serve his or her own personal pecuniary interest to the prejudice of the interests of those for whom the law authorized and required him to act.”

Select Board member Alexandra Fogel said April 6 that having a public bid process would solve the issue of town officials or employees receiving compensation for contracted work, and the charter often makes it difficult to govern properly. She said she believed that some board members had spoken with the town’s attorney about crafting an amendment to the charter.

“We have to clear it up,” Fogel said. “If we change [the charter] it won’t be an issue.” She said she was surprised that the charter amendment would be on the agenda for the board’s April 12 meeting.

“I didn’t know that it was happening so quickly,” she said. “That was not apparent and it gives me pause.”

“There should be a definition that the public understands,” Farley said. He said the fact that the issue is raised in the existing charter means some sort of financial relationship between Select Board members and the town is allowable.

“If the charter has been violated, my feeling is that we make it possible for good business practices to be done for the town,” Fogel said. She said she had been unaware of the extent of Floor Magic’s business dealings with the town of Rockport.

“We try to do it right,” Fogel said. “The appearance is unfortunate.” She said that prohibiting contracts between the town and its employees and officials had the effect of discouraging people from running for office.

Shrum said his group had engaged an attorney to make sure their interpretation of the charter is accurate.

“I think we’re on pretty solid ground,” he said. “We hope that, at some point, the issue will be brought to the Select Board in a public forum so we can address these concerns.” He said he and other Rockport residents plan to attend the April 12 Select Board meeting.

Duke said the proposed amendment to the charter was taken from the Rockland city charter, and it would legitimize the process used in December 2008, when Floor Magic was awarded the contract to repair the opera house floor. He said the three board members who do not do business with the town will discuss it when the board meets April 12.

“State law requires select boards to police themselves,” Duke said.

Amendment would let officials work for town

If amended, Article II, Section 2 of the Rockport charter would read as follows:

“Only qualified voters of the town shall be eligible to hold the office of selectman. Select Board members shall not hold any other compensated town office or position of employment and shall not individually or through a business entity in which they have a direct or indirect pecuniary interest, as defined in 30-A M.R.S.A. §2605(4), provide any goods or services to the town for which they receive compensation except in connection with a contract that has been awarded after a competitive bid process.”

That change would allow contracts such as the ones Farley & Son and Floor Magic have with the town. Town Manager Robert Peabody said April 6 that he would expect that any contract to which a Select Board member’s business is a party would be awarded by a formal, rather than an informal bid process.

Any amendment to Rockport’s charter would have to be given a public hearing and be ratified by a vote of the town. In this case the hearing would take place on April 20 and the vote would be on the secret ballot on June 8.

E-mail meetings worry Rockport residents

Public process is the other concern Shrum expressed on April 5. He said e-mail exchanges between board members, and the manner in which decisions are made may have impacted public decision making.

Article II, Section 7 states, “The Select Board shall act as a unit settling all questions by formal vote in authorized meetings. Members must not act individually unless specific authority related to a particular duty has been delegated to them by the board.”

Section 11 reads, “All meetings of the board shall be open to the public.” Closed or executive sessions are allowed under limited circumstances.

Shrum said recent discussions about the possible privatization of some of Rockport’s public works functions have increased his level of concern.

“From my perspective our Public Works Department does amazing work and saves the community a considerable amount of money,” he said. Insinuations made by some members of the Select Board that privatizing the department could save money are insulting to the department, Shrum said.

“Why should my tax dollars go to help strengthen a private company’s bottom line?” Shrum asked.

Article II, Section 9 states that a board member shall forfeit his or her office if he or she violates any express prohibition of the charter.

“The reality is, the town voted for the charter in 2005,” Shrum said. “Like it or not, that’s what we live by and the town officials have to live by the rules that are outlined in the charter.”

The Rockport Select Board will discuss a possible amendment to the town’s charter at its next meeting on Monday, April 12 at 7 p.m. at the Rockport Opera House. For more information, call the town office at 236-0806.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.

 

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