BANGOR, Maine — A motion made and seconded to accept the donation of a content management system by a company co-owned by Bangor Councilor and Mayor Cary Weston quickly led to disagreement and debate among councilors.
The motion, made at the end of Monday afternoon’s finance committee meeting, was to vote on the approval of the donation of software valued at around $7,000 by Sutherland-Weston Marketing/Communications of Bangor for use by the city as part of its redesigned website.
After the motion was seconded, Councilor Charlie Longo voiced his displeasure over the donation and questioned whether it created a conflict of interest.
“When decisions are made without board approval, it creates a bad situation. It’s a situation I don’t want to get in, especially if it comes down to one councilor giving out a significant donation,” said Longo. “We may not have the same access to staff if I’m not able to give a significant donation in kind. If I can’t do that, where does that leave me?
“It’s not a personal thing, but what kinds of things does one councilor get to have over another? Seven thousand may buy something. It looks like it. I wonder if this is even a conflict for him to be in the room right now.”
Weston said he took exception to the charge leveled by Longo, who referenced a city charter section, Section 33-8, dealing with gifts and favors.
“As elected representatives of the city of Bangor, we have a responsibility to maintain the highest integrity. I personally take offense to the comments made by Councilor Longo,” said Weston. “I wish you would watch your comments.”
Weston suggested that Longo was allowing some of his personal views to cloud his judgment on the donation before excusing himself from the committee meeting and stepping outside the council chambers.
“I don’t know why we wouldn’t accept any kind of donation to the city, especially in these trying economic times,” said Councilor James Gallant, who seconded the motion. “I’m very taken aback by us not very graciously accepting this donation.”
Elizabeth Sutherland, Weston’s business partner and co-owner of Sutherland-Weston, said donating her company’s services or products is not unusual.
“We have given away five websites alone this year, and we have probably given away more than $30,000 in manpower, services, products and even money this year,” said Sutherland, noting her company donated $25,000-$30,000 in services to the Arena Yes group earlier this year.”
“The reason we do this? This is how we operate,” she said. “We can’t give it all away because we are a for-profit business and we have employees that count on their jobs, but we do want to make this area a better place to live and be happy.”
Sutherland added that the fact Weston was a councilor had no bearing on the donation.
“Would we have considered it if he wasn’t on the council? Absolutely, because we do all the time,” she said. “Every year we look at our bottom line and do inventory, it’s gotten to be a running joke about us needing to stop giving too much away.”
City Manager Cathy Conlow said it’s simply a matter of a bidding process and accepting the lowest bid.
“Seven thousand dollars doesn’t buy a lot of access and a lot of contracts go out via bidding process. If they don’t give the lower bid, they don’t win,” Conlow said. “We did have a bid, for $3,000. It wasn’t an intent in any way to give preferential treatment to any councilor or business and if council would rather accept the $3,000 bid and turn down the donation, we can do that.”
Longo also insinuated that Weston had conflict-of-interest issues regarding the city’s recently shelved plans to institute a single-stream recycling and pay-as-you-throw trash disposal system and Sutherland-Weston’s bid for an advertising/public relations campaign.
“I know with PAYT, Councilor Weston’s firm bid $29,000 and another bid $11,000. It has a perception of being that or has a perception of being that there is a conflict of interest,” Longo said.
Sutherland said Longo was misunderstanding the wording of her company’s bid.
“I know we did put a proposal in for the PAYT marketing campaign, but the difference between our bid and the other was we had about $11,000-$15,000 going to local media for advertising, and that was specifically spelled out in our proposal,” she said.
Councilor Pat Blanchette also was upset over what she perceived as a conflict-of-interest question.
“I’m going to have to question whether Councilor Weston should even be at this table discussing this,” she said.
Councilor and committee chairman Nelson Durgin decided to defer the motion, consult City Solicitor Norm Heitmann on any city policy regarding donations, and put it on the agenda for the next City Council meeting on Monday, Dec. 12.
Weston took a couple of minutes to apologize to his fellow councilors later Monday evening, saying he holds himself to a high standard and felt he violated it with his earlier public comments.