Bangor councilor’s donation to city isn’t a conflict, experts say

Posted Dec. 06, 2011, at 8:18 p.m.

Bangor’s city charter includes a section (33-8) pertaining to restrictions on gifts and favors to councilors:

A. No City employee, City Councilor, board member or commission member shall accept any gift, favor or thing of value, whether in the form of service, loan, thing or promise, from any person or business which to his or her knowledge is interested directly or indirectly in any manner whatsoever in business dealings with the City, nor shall any City employee, City Councilor, board member or commission member:

(1) Accept any gift, favor or thing of value that tends to influence that individual in the discharge of his or her official duties; or

(2) Grant in the discharge of his or her official duties any improper favor, service or thing of value.

B. Nothing herein shall prohibit the acceptance of gifts or favors by City employees, City Councilors, board members or commission members from members of their immediate families. In determining whether a violation of this section has occurred, the Board of Ethics, in cases referred to it pursuant to § 33-21 of this code, shall consider the monetary or pecuniary value of the gift, favor or thing received; any special economic value the gift, favor or thing received may have to the recipient; the circumstances under which the gift, favor or thing concerned was received; and whether a public disclosure of the receipt was made by the recipient at the time.

BANGOR, Maine — Both City Solicitor Norm Heitmann and the Maine Municipal Association see nothing wrong with the donation of a website content management system to the city by a councilor’s business.

“There’s nothing in the charter that prohibits a councilor or his business from making a donation, or the council from accepting that donation,” Heitmann said Tuesday, the day after sparks flew at a finance committee meeting when Councilor Charlie Longo suggested that the donation created a conflict of interest for fellow Councilor and Mayor Cary Weston. “Sutherland-Weston’s offer, and the city’s acceptance, are perfectly proper.”

Sutherland-Weston Marketing/Communications, a Bangor business co-owned by Weston, offered to donate its own $7,000 content management software for the city’s newly redesigned website about six months ago. The city’s finance committee was poised to vote to accept the donation when Longo raised the conflict-of-interest issue and accused Weston of influence peddling by “buying access.” The matter was tabled so that Heitmann could be consulted and the full council could take up the issue next week.

“In this instance, we have some very involved ordinances, and I can understand how someone might be confused,” Heitmann said. “Obviously it doesn’t apply. I let them know this morning that everything is fine.”

Heitman, who has been working for Bangor since 1995 and has been the city solicitor since 1999, said he couldn’t recall any councilor giving the city anything during his tenure, but that there have been many instances of the city having business dealings with companies owned by or employing sitting councilors.

“In terms of donations, I don’t recall that, but in terms of having contracts with business owned by or employing councilors, that has happened numerous times,” said Heitmann. “We’ve had councilors who worked for Bangor Hydro, EMMC, Sawyer Environmental.”

Geoff Herman, director of state and federal relations for the Maine Municipal Association, said he sees no conflicts or problems with Sutherland-Weston’s offer or the council’s acceptance of it when it comes to state law, established MMA rules or Bangor’s city charter as he understands it.

“I’m not familiar with Bangor’s charter, but there’s a generic law on the statutes for conflict of interest if you don’t have anything in your own charter,” Herman said.

The Maine Municipal Association is a nonprofit, nonpartisan voluntary membership organization that offers professional services to municipalities and other local governmental entities in Maine. Bangor is not an MMA member.

“If you have a 10 percent or greater interest in the business or entity coming before a board you sit on, that’s a defined conflict and you must recuse yourself from the decision-making process,” said Herman. “Based on the gifts and favors section [of the Bangor City Charter that was read to him Tuesday], and our own guidelines, I see no problem.”

Herman said another guiding principle his organization stresses and urges is to always avoid the appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest.

“It appears to me that the language … seems geared more to individuals receiving gifts or services and doesn’t seem to prohibit the board from accepting free goods or services,” Herman said, referring to the city charter. “In Bangor’s case, the governing body and legislative body are essentially the same, and there’s potential for confusion over the issue, given the charter, but there appears to me that there’s no conflict.”