Cape Elizabeth Town Council faces conflict-of-interest questions

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The Town Council elected new leadership Monday in a meeting that included discussion about a councilor’s potential conflict of interest.

Outgoing Chairman Jamie Garvin passed the gavel to Councilor Jessica Sullivan, who was unanimously elected chairwoman for 2018.

A councilor since 2009, Sullivan served the past year as chairwoman of the Finance Committee and has chaired and served on both the ordinance and appointments subcommittees.

“I would like to thank the council for their support,” Sullivan said. “I’m looking forward to a productive year.” 

The potential conflict involves newly elected Councilor Chris Straw, who initiated the discussion, and his wife, Hope, who was elected to the School Board. 

Straw has asked the town to take an official position on the issue “with respect to both the present situation and for any future candidates.” 

“We are in uncharted waters,” Town Manager Matt Sturgis said Monday. 

In a Nov. 8 letter, Straw asked the council to discuss whether he is prohibited from serving on the council while his wife serves on the School Board, and whether he may participate in and vote on issues relating to the school budget while his wife is on the board. 

Straw said he felt these are “legitimate questions” that he believes “warrant an official position from the town.” 

It was a change of heart for Straw who, when asked by a reporter in September why voters should not be concerned about electing a married couple to the two panels, rebuffed the question as “sexist” and said he and his wife are independent people with their own opinions on issues.

On Monday, Straw apologized for the earlier reply and said he was being “facetious” at the time. He said after considering the question further, he realized it could be a legitimate concern of residents and should be addressed.

In response to Straw’s request for an official position, town attorney Thomas Leahy said there is nothing in the Town Charter that would disqualify the Straws from serving simultaneously on the council and School Board. 

Leahy said the voting question is less clear-cut. 

“We do not believe the situation creates a true pecuniary conflict under state law, as the approval or disapproval of the School Budget by the Town Council would not result in a financial loss or gain to the Town Council member or School Board member,” he said.

But he added that it could have the “appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Leahy advised that Straw disclose his position that to the full council when the budget is presented and state whether he feels there is a conflict of interest. Further, Leahy suggested the council then vote on the matter. 

On Monday, councilors agreed Straw is qualified to serve on the council and decided to hold a discussion and vote on whether he should be recused from school budget deliberations when the time comes. 

“The second item … would seem to be more pertinent at the time at which we approach any decisions around the budget, which we’re not doing tonight,” Garvin said. 

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Christopher Straw, left, is a Cape Elizabeth town councilor. His wife Hope is on the School Board.

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  • Darren McLellan

    Much ado about nothing.

  • tedcohen

    Excellent reporting job, holding this two-faced pol’s prevaricating mouth to the fire.