Conflicted Perception

Posted Oct. 08, 2009, at 8:02 p.m.

Whether the sale of land to the Brewer Housing Authority by its former chairman is deemed a legal conflict of interest or not, the transaction is tainted. Nearly as important as the legal definition of conflict of interest — which is much more narrow than most people would expect — is the perception of conflict. By the latter measure, the sale is a black eye for local government.

According to the BDN’s reporting on the issue, Calvin Bubar joined the city’s housing authority board in September 2007, about a month after he purchased the land. He became chairman in January 2008, and resigned in July of this year. Negotiations for the authority to purchase the 4.1-acre parcel were under way while Bubar was chairman a year ago. A developer, the Penquis social service agency, plans to build a $6 million, 32-unit elderly housing structure on the land.

Mr. Bubar’s land is assessed by the city at $88,000, but he sold it to the housing authority for $280,000. One explanation for the leap in value in a down real estate market is that the parcel is expected be rezoned from residential to commercial to accommodate the project. But since the rezoning has yet to be accomplished, the inflated price raises further red flags.

Ultimately, the charges of conflict of interest against Mr. Bubar that are flying around Brewer City Hall will be decided by a legal authority. But his and the authority’s decisions regarding the project reflect bad judgment. And the price of that bad judgment is a loss of faith in local government.

The dilemma Mr. Bubar faced — owning a parcel of land that lent itself well to the housing authority’s goals — is one faced by many people who take on the thankless elected and appointed jobs in municipal government. Such dilemmas are why many smart and creative business owners do not become involved in local government; their trepidation is both understandable and unfortunate, because they have much to offer.

Assuming Mr. Bubar did not join the authority to facilitate selling his land, he should have recognized much earlier in the process that merely removing himself from votes and executive session meetings was not enough to remove the perception of conflict. And others involved in this tainted deal should have spoken out against it, even if attorneys said it escaped the definition of conflict of interest.

The council is expected to vote next week to ask the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the matter. This is the right course of action.

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