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Freeport councilor, lawyer's opinion deflect conflict-of-interest claim

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Freeport councilor, lawyer's opinion deflect conflict-of-interest claim

FREEPORT — The Town Council on Sept. 14 forgave a portion of a loan to the Freeport Community Center, but not before one councilor's affiliation with the center raised questions about the decision.

Councilor Sara Gideon, who sits on the FCS board of trustees, was one of four councilors who voted to forgive nearly $117,000 loaned by the town to the Community Center.

The vote was 4-0, with one abstention and two councilors absent. Without Gideon's vote, the council would not have had a quorum or the majority needed to pass the measure.

Councilor Joe Migliaccio later challenged the validity of the vote and, citing the Town Charter and state law, said Gideon should have recused herself.

But according to the town attorney, Christopher L. Vaniotis, Gideon was not required by law to abstain.

In a memo to Town Manager Dale Olmstead on Tuesday, Vaniotis said that as a member of the FCS board – a private, nonprofit nongovernmental organization – Gideon had the right to vote since she receives no compensation or other financial benefit for the volunteer position.

He also said that while a "neutral observer could reasonably conclude that Councilor Gideon's involvement as a board member of FCS could create the appearance of a possible conflict of interest," he said that under Maine law that does not necessarily disqualify her from participating in the vote.

He said disclosure and abstention offer two options when posed with potential conflicts of interest, but each case should be based on its own merits and the "statute does not specify when disclosure is sufficient by itself and when abstention is required.

"That is a question which must be answered in the first instance by the municipal official who has the potential conflict and then ... by the remaining members of the body," Vaniotis said.

Migliaccio and Councilor Rich DeGrandpre were absent from the Sept. 14 meeting when the five remaining councilors voted to apply about $52,000 in interest to the principal of the loan, to eliminate any further interest on the loan, and to forgive $65,000, provided the Community Center Campaign Committee can raise the other $65,000.

Councilor Eric Pandora abstained. He said he would prefer the entire council to be present for the vote and he wanted to discuss the provisions of the lease agreement.

Migliaccio questioned the validity of the vote during a special meeting on Monday, Sept. 20, and asked councilors to reconsider their previous vote in order to discuss the lease arrangements and allow Gideon to recuse herself.

Councilors rebuked Migliaccio's request, but voted 4-1 over the objection of Chairman Bill Muldoon to seek the town attorney's opinion.

"(This) can all be resolved cleanly if one of the four council members that voted that night retracts their vote and we go through the process again," Migliaccio said in an e-mail on Tuesday night. "To be clear, given all the procedural challenges via lawsuits lately, we need to be crystal clear (that) the council as a body has a valid vote."

But the town attorney ultimately disagreed.

Gideon said on Tuesday morning that she is confident she acted in good faith. She said she would not have voted if she thought she would be legally prohibited from doing so. 

"I serve on both (the council and the FCS board) because I believe the good of any community comes from public participation," she said. "I have no financial or pecuniary interest in FCS. In representing Distinct 1, I would be remiss if I did not vote because there are a significant amount of people I represent that rely on the services offered at FCS. "

Amy Anderson can be reached at781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net