BRUNSWICK, Maine — After being criticized for making an unusual and unprecedented loan, the Brunswick Development Corp. is considering a conflict of interest policy, increased transparency and a greater number of citizen members.
The proposals were discussed at BDC’s Wednesday afternoon meeting, where its board fielded questions from the largest public audience a BDC meeting has seen.
The relationship between the town and BDC came under fire after the group issued a forgivable, $247,000 loan in July to a business owned by the husband of a former town councilor and BDC board member.
The critics, including Town Councilors Benet Pols and John Perreault, said the transaction had too much potential for a conflict of interest.
Councilor John Richardson, one of two councilors now on the BDC board, said some of the proposed bylaw changes, including the addition of a conflict-of-interest policy, were not a direct reaction to the recent criticism.
Instead, he said, some of the changes have been in the making for months and, in some cases, years. The BDC’s bylaws were last modified in 2010.
But, Richardson said, the questions and confusion over what the BDC is and its relationship to the town as a result of the loan led him to propose creating a website and new rules to make the BDC more transparent.
“I think there has been a lot of confusion on the part of the public that has been driven by some personal and political agendas,” he said after Wednesday’s meeting, “but largely, the public has remained somewhat confused about the role of the BDC, because the BDC has not done as good a job as it should in explaining its role, its mission and how it has improved the town of Brunswick.”
Richardson cited a loan issued to Gelato Fiasco that has helped that business expand, and an agreement with Wiscasset-based Coastal Enterprises to bring about 55 jobs into town, as positive examples of BDC’s work.
The board Wednesday decided to form a committee — comprised of President Larissa Darcy, board member William Morrell, and Richardson — to review the proposed bylaw changes and present them by BDC’s Oct. 16 meeting.
The BDC would then ratify any changes in a special meeting scheduled for Oct. 23.
Some of the proposed changes include removing town Finance Director John Eldridge from the BDC board, adding another citizen member, making it clear that BDC board members are not compensated, and removing the Town Council’s role in ratifying citizen appointments to the BDC.
Another proposed change would require the BDC to post advance notice of its meetings, with agendas posted to the town’s website and BDC’s proposed website.
BDC is already subject to some Maine right-to-know laws, as determined by the town’s attorney when BDC was incorporated in 1995, which is why its meetings and some of its documents are public.
Richardson said the proposed conflict-of-interest policy could be similar to what is used by the Freeport Economic Development Corp., which requires its members to acknowledge and sign off on such a policy every year.
The policy would bar any public officials from seeking financial assistance from the BDC, Richardson said.
After BDC finished discussion of the proposed bylaw changes, the board fielded questions from some members of the public.
Scott Wiley, of Tarratine Drive, expressed confusion over whether BDC is a private or public corporation and its exact relationship with the Town Council.
“It’s unclear to me as to whether you people think you’re independent or an extension of the Town Council,” he said.
Richardson said the BDC is technically a nonprofit organization, and is considered a public-private partnership because of its board make-up, which consists of two ex-officio town staff members, two town councilors and three citizens.
He said although the BDC is independent from the town, it can be difficult to convey that because it was originally funded by a town loan that was fully paid back.
“It’s very difficult to state to the public that with four public members, two town employees and two elected officials, that this doesn’t have some sort of connection to the town,” Richardson said. “It does. (But) you almost have to be a lawyer to understand … that (BDC’s current fund balance) isn’t town money.”