It can be a challenge sometimes for local elected officials, often among the most active, motivated and involved members of our communities, to take off one hat and put on another.
That’s what we believe happened last week in Freeport, where Town Councilor Sara Gideon cast a deciding vote to forgive nearly $117,000 loaned by the town to the Freeport Community Center.
Besides being a councilor, Gideon is a trustee of the community center, an affiliation she has made no attempt to hide. Did her vote on a matter of financial significance to the center violate either state law or the Town Charter? Apparently not, because it afforded Gideon no personal financial gain.
But did it violate the faith we place in our elected officials?
There were only four councilors available to vote on the loan forgiveness proposal; two others were absent and one, Eric Pandora, abstained because he wanted further discussion of the agreement by the full council. Gideon, who recognized the appearance of a conflict of interest, could have abstained, too. That would have resulted in the lack of a quorum and delayed the vote until enough councilors were available to make a fully informed and thoroughly vetted decision.
She also could have voted – despite her affiliation with the center – against the proposal. That would have defeated the plan, but dispelled any suggestion that her vote was tainted by the outside relationship.
Unfortunately, Gideon did neither of those things. She may have complied with the letter of the law by disclosing the appearance of a conflict. But the problem with the appearance of a conflict is that no matter how good your own faith, you’re going to test the faith and scrutiny of the citizens who judge what you do.
Separately, each one of Gideon’s hats – town councilor, community center trustee – may be a good fit. But she should take a longer look in the mirror before trying to wear both of them at the same time.