Falmouth policy would ease conflict of interest rules

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FALMOUTH — The Town Council on Monday continued to move toward adopting a conflict of interest policy.

While no action was taken, councilors agreed to have another discussion Feb. 22, with a vote possible at their first meeting in March.

Vice Chairman Russell Anderson, who has been leading the effort to get a policy in place, said the latest proposal, drafted by the town attorney, is the result of subcommittee discussions that have taken place over the course of a year. The conversations began because the town does not have such a policy in place. 

The two-page draft policy presented to the Council on Monday targets three potential conflicts.

The first is when a matter before the council could have a “direct and substantial financial benefit or detriment” to a councilor and/or their immediate family –spouses, children, parents, siblings, “and any other person with whom a Councilor shares living quarters under circumstances that closely resemble a marital relationship or who is financially dependent on the Councilor.”

The second is when a matter before the Council could have a financial impact on a councilor’s employer or the employer of their immediate family members.

The final instance is when a matter could have a financial impact on any outside organization where a councilor holds a leadership position.

The draft is less complicated and less absolute than prior versions, and the policy states it is “not intended to be an exhaustive list.”

“Now instead of a red light, we have a yellow light,” Anderson said.

The policy also requires councilors to disclose any potential conflicts of interest. Once a disclosure is made, the councilor will either have to abstain from the vote or discussion, or explain why he or she does not believe it is a conflict of interest.

“It is entirely up to the individual councilor,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the final paragraph of the draft addresses concerns the policy may “hamstring future councils from acting on important issues” or dissuading individuals from public service. It acknowledges that because Falmouth is a relatively small town, there may be times when councilors are faced with decisions that affect their personal interests.

Anderson said having too broad a policy had the potential to limit councilors when they ought to be able to act.

The draft language says councilors are not automatically disqualified from voting on a town-wide zoning changes because they own land that will be affected by the decision, “especially if the financial benefits to the Councilor involved in the legislative action are speculative, indirect and/or insubstantial.”

“Just because you feel strongly about something does not mean you have a conflict of interest,” Anderson said.

The five councilors at the meeting were receptive to the policy. Councilors Karen Farber and Ned Kitchell were absent.

Councilor Caleb Hemphill said the language was “really common-sense guidance.”

“I think this is a very reasonable result,” Hemphill said. “The town here is very supportive and clear of what proper conduct is.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.