Yarmouth council to air new conduct rules, vote on extending marijuana ban

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YARMOUTH — The Town Council is drafting new rules to address councilors’ conduct, conflicts of interest, and gender-inclusive language.

Votes to extend a ban on retail marijuana establishments and social clubs, and the endorsement of a “Solarize Yarmouth” program are also scheduled for Jan. 18.

The proposed rules, drafted by Councilor Tim Shannon, were presented during a Jan. 11 workshop. He said conversations were spurred by a contentiousness surrounding a resolution approved in August condemning racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“We spent a lot of time working on the rules in response to certain residents’ concerns,” Shannon said. He noted that discussions began prior to presentation last November of a citizen petition calling on the council to enact a code of conduct and ethics. 

Chairwoman Pat Thompson stressed that the wording of the rules is not final and will not be voted on yet, but said the council wanted the public to know that discussions are taking place, primarily at Operations Committee meetings. 

Shannon, on the other hand, said he’d like to see the council approve the rules and move forward, saying they’ve spent longer drafting council rules than the 116 days it took framers to draft the U.S. Constitution. 

“I’m going to push the council to vote, declare victory, and move on,” he said. “If others want to keep re-litigating issues, they can … but in my opinion, we’ve accomplished a lot and should move on.”

Shannon’s draft included amended wording throughout the rules, making them gender-neutral, including changing “his” to “his/her” and “chairman” to “chairperson.”

But the most substantial change to the council rules is the addition of a section addressing how councilors conduct themselves, both in meetings and on social media. 

If implemented, Section IV would affirm that, when posting on official town-related social media platforms, councilors should adhere to the “highest ethical standards;” allow the post to be accessible to the public; treat comments equally, unless they are “abusive, threatening, obscene, or libelous,” and avoid disparaging remarks about fellow councilors. 

While posting from private accounts, councilors should make it known that opinions posted are theirs only and in no way reflect the views or feelings of the council as a whole. 

Shannon said councilors should post in a fashion that won’t “fuel unhealthy comments,” noting that the majority of back-and-forth on community Facebook pages has been between commentors, not councilors. 

“Some commentators have gotten carried away, even more than a councilor,” he said, without citing specific examples. “Councilors have posted something and commentators have taken it even further.”

Furthermore, the section states that councilors should conduct themselves in an unbiased, nonpartisan, respectful manner when publicly discussing town matters. 

Conflicts of interest are also addressed in a policy that specifies circumstances in which a conflict of interest may arise: when a matter has a substantial or direct financial benefit or detriment to the councilor or a family member, employer or family member’s employer, or an outside organization in which the councilor holds a leadership position. 

“Being a town councilor calls us to balance our individual priorities with our obligations to one another,” Shannon said. “We also have an obligation to be respectful and maintain the psychological health of the whole council.”

Moreover, the proposed rules assert that in order to avoid a potential appearance of a conflict of interest, councilors should disclose the relevant information or abstain from a discussion or vote. 

“Given the relatively small size of the Yarmouth community, councilors may be faced from time to time with making decisions that affect their personal interests in a manner substantially similar to the interests of other Yarmouth residents,” Shannon noted with the policy. 

While certain issues have brought up heated debate among councilors, Shannon said recently, conduct has been “fine.” 

“We have our spats, of course, but the ability to talk to each other is fine after an initial flare-up,” he said. “It’s OK to have robust, open, public debate, we just need to make sure we do it in a respectful fashion, and that’s the balance we’ve tried to strike with these rules.” 

Marijuana, solar energy

While a vote on the rules has not been scheduled, after some delay the council is scheduled to vote Thursday on a ban on retail marijuana establishments and social clubs and a “Solarize Yarmouth” progra.

If approved, the marijuana ban would prohibit retail establishments and social clubs indefinitely.

The town has a six-month moratorium on retail marijuana and social clubs that is set to expire Feb. 13. State law allows the ban to be temporarily extended for one more six-month period. 

If the council  endorses a solarization program, the town would provide a joint purchasing option for solar panels for residents and businesses, which would help reduce the cost of installation. Similar programs have been implemented in Freeport, Bath and Brunswick. 

The town would function as an organizing agency and intermediary between the public and selected solar installers, but would have little to no liability and no financial obligation.

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

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