Falmouth council candidate faces potential conflict after accepting school job

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FALMOUTH — John Lane, who recently accepted a job teaching science at Falmouth High School, said he doesn’t have much confidence in an opinion from the town attorney that says an employee of the School Department can’t serve on the Town Council.

Lane is one of two candidates June 12 for a two-year seat on the council.

“I think (the attorney’s) opinion is overly cautious,” Lane said this week. “Unlike town employees, school district employees are overseen by a separately elected School Board (and) the Town Council has no say in the hiring and firing of teachers, school policy, or the day-to-day running of the schools.”

Lane, who has been teaching at South Portland High School, said he inquired about the possibility of a conflict of interest during a meeting with Town Manager Nathan Poore, that’s when Poore decided to seek a legal opinion about how the Town Charter applies to the situation.

In the opinion dated May 25, attorney Philip Saucier of Bernstein Shur in Portland said the charter is clear: “No councilor shall hold any paid office or position of employment with the town.”

Saucier said his reading of that provision is that it applies to employees in any town department, including the schools.

“Under the Falmouth Town Charter and state law, the Town Council reviews and approves the total appropriation of (the School Department) and determines the compensation of the members of the School Board, creating a potential conflict of interest for a (school) employee,” Saucier wrote.

Saucier also said the charter could have excluded School Department employees from the general prohibition on councilors working for the town, but it doesn’t.

He said this is especially important in light of the fact that the charter does specifically allow two exemptions: one for non-ranking members of the Fire/EMS Department and the other for members of the Fire Police.

“When interpreting an ordinance or charter provision, the court looks first to the ‘plain meaning of the terms of the ordinance to give effect to the legislative intent’ and if the meaning of the provision is clear it does ‘not look beyond the words themselves,'” Saucier added.

Lane lives in West Falmouth and has three children in public schools. When he filed to run for office, he was working at South Portland High School. In an interview published in early May, Lane said he had been considering running for office for a while.

When asked about the biggest issues facing Falmouth, Lane said, “I’m most worried about how the Town Council has lost its way in hearing what people want for the community,” which included moving forward on a controversial contract zone in West Falmouth that has since been withdrawn from consideration.

Lane’s opponent is Ted Asherman. The two candidates are seeking to replace Andy Jones, who resigned from the council in late March after moving out of town. The winner of next week’s election will complete Jones’ term, which runs through June 2020.

Even after reading Saucier’s opinion, Lane said, “I see no logical reason that a teacher can’t serve on the Town Council. Other towns in the area have a history of teachers serving in town government.”

As examples he pointed to Shirley Storey-King, who has been a councilor in Cumberland for more than a decade while also teaching at Greely Middle School. He also mentioned Meghan Casey, who is running for a seat on the Yarmouth Town Council while working as a high school teacher there.

However, each municipality has its own charter and its own rules about who can serve on its governing board.

Town Council Chairman Caleb Hemphill said there is no role for the council to play unless Lane is elected. He said at that point, the council could invoke a provision in the charter that gives it authority over who is qualified to be seated.

Both Poore and Hemphill were also clear that until Lane is elected, there are no steps the town could take to disqualify him or remove his name from the ballot.

This week Lane said he was “absolutely” still actively campaigning and argued that “attorney Saucier could only find two instances – reviewing the school budget and determining the compensation of the School Board – in which there was a conflict of interest.”

“Given the myriad of other things the Town Council does, I think that I can be an effective representative of the people while recusing myself from these two matters” when they come up, he said.

There is no enforcement mechanism, however, that requires councilors to recuse themselves when there’s a potential conflict.

Lane went on to say he doesn’t think “there’s actually (any) legal reason why I can’t serve on the Town Council. I am excited about the opportunity to teach in the community where I live and where my kids and their friends go to school. I think I have a lot to offer the people of Falmouth by serving on the council (and) see no reason why I can’t do both jobs.”

He said he also hasn’t tried to hide that he accepted the Falmouth job. “I posted the news on my campaign Facebook page (so) the voters of Falmouth would have all the information they need to make an informed decision on Election Day,” he said.

If he’s elected, Lane said he would hope to “make the case that an informed voting populace made their choice.” In addition, Lane said, “I think the legal opinion offers an overly cautious interpretation of the rules and effectively bars Falmouth teachers from participating in town government.”

“I’m not running for a seat on the School Board, I am running for a seat on the Town Council (and) like most members of the council, (as well as) the other candidates, I have a day job. Mine just happens to be in a (town) school,” he said.

Lane also argued, “The legal opinion provided to the town is not a judgment from a court. It represents the opinion of one attorney at one law firm, (so) I would caution people not to put too much stock in it.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.