YARMOUTH — A former town councilor is petitioning the town to add a charter provision to prohibit election of municipal or school employees to the Town Council.
James MacLeod, whose term on the council expired earlier this year, said he and a group of residents calling themselves Yarmouth Citizens for Responsible Government are gathering signatures.
The group has until 1 p.m. Sept. 14 to collect the signatures required to send the provision to a referendum. Town Manager Nat Tupper said the threshold is 7 percent of the registered voters at the time of the filing, which is expected to be more than 500 signatures.
MacLeod said he was not sure how many signatures had been gathered as of Aug. 27.
The proposal would also prevent councilors from holding a paid town or School Department office or job during their tenure on the council.
“If a councilor or councilor-elect shall fail to meet any of these qualifications,” the proposed amendment says, “the Town Council shall, by resolution, declare the office of that councilor or councilor-elect vacant.”
The proposal comes two months after the election of Councilor Meghan Casey, who teaches Latin at Yarmouth High School.
Throughout the campaign, Casey faced questions about whether a School Department employee could legally serve on the council, despite an opinion from town attorney Shana Cook Mueller in August 2017 that there weren’t any prohibitive conflicts of interest particular to Casey’s candidacy.
Mueller referenced a 2013 legal case, Callaghan v. City of South Portland, when the court held that South Portland’s personnel policy prohibiting municipal employees from serving on the City Council or School Board “impermissibly infringed on municipal employees’ First Amendment rights.”
“Both Maine municipal law and common sense stand in opposition to (MacLeod’s) petition,” Casey said in an Aug. 23 email. “The Maine statute governing conflict of interest on municipal elected officials clearly states that there is no conflict of interest when teachers serve as municipal elected officials. It is true that a town is allowed to create rules that are more restrictive than state law, but state law sees no conflict of interest.
“Further,” Casey continued, “a common-sense glance at (Town Council) work clearly shows no reason school employees should not be allowed to serve on the Town Council.”
MacLeod said an assumption could be made that no school or municipal employees could serve on the council because of language that already exists in the Town Charter that states councilors may hold no office of emolument or profit.
“A lot of people assumed that that included employees of the town or the School Board,” MacLeod said, noting that the council votes on school bond initiatives and budgets.
“(Yarmouth Citizens for Responsible Government) think it’s a matter of good governance not to have town or school employees sitting on the council,” he added.
Casey said she was insulted and “honestly hurt” by the insinuation that, since her salary is a part of the school budget, “her vote on the school budget each year would be swayed by the impact the budget would have on her own financial situation.”
“As most people are aware, our salaries are decided by union contract negotiations every three years … negotiations that do not involve the (council),” Casey said. “Small salary increases are often, though not always, a part of that contract.”
Although MacLeod said the proposal is not meant as a personal attack, Casey said “the implication that I would shirk my duty as an elected Town Council member, that I would analyze or vote on any for any reason other than what is best for the town of Yarmouth is wrong and, frankly, insulting.
“Our charter and state law allow for councilors to recuse themselves when (any potential conflicts of interest) come up,” she said. “But to propose unilaterally banning a certain class of people from serving on the Town Council because you assume they will vote in a personal or not-civic manner is both unfair and insulting.”
MacLeod said the issue is “should there be any boundaries at all of (school or town) employees serving on the Town Council. … Common sense and good governance would suggest that those would be separated.”
Further, MacLeod said the petition would only put the proposal to a referendum vote.
“We wanted it to be very low key and see if there is enough interest. … If the signatures are obtained and it goes to referendum, the citizens will make a decision,” he said. “The motivation is good governance and nothing more.”
If the proposal is enacted, Casey would be permitted to serve the remainder of her three-year term.
“All citizens of Yarmouth have a right to run for Town Council, and if elected, serve,” Casey said. “There needs to be a very compelling reason to take that right away from a citizen. Such compelling reasons do exist. But the fact that once a year the Town Council gives an up or down recommendation on the school budget is not such a reason.”