BRUNSWICK, Maine — Actions by four-term Town Councilor David Watson have raised questions about whether he violated the council’s ethics policy by voting on a request to rezone a parcel of land partially owned by his cousin, contractor Ted Crooker.
At a June 21 public hearing, Watson moved to have the council adopt the zoning amendments. He later voted to table the request and hold a second public hearing on the matter.
During discussion, he never mentioned his relationship with Crooker.
Watson firmly denies he did anything wrong.
Crooker, who testified at the hearing, wants to have a small, mixed-use district on Old Bath Road just north of U.S. Route 1 rezoned. It would be split between a more rural area and the nearby Cooks Corner district, which has more lenient development standards.
If the rezoning is approved, Crooker plans to build a self-storage facility on two plots he owns in the area.
The rezoning request is supported by the planning board.
Crooker, in an interview after last week’s meeting, said Watson’s failure to disclose their relationship does not suggest a conflict of interest.
In an interview Tuesday, Watson said he was not required to disclose his relationship with Crooker.
“For there to be a conflict of interest,” he said, “I have to have a monetary gain.”
The council’s rules of procedure, however, suggest otherwise.
The policy requires councilors to refrain from participating in matters in which they have a financial interest, and it also disqualifies councilors from involving themselves in any “quasi-judicial” matter if it involves a relative as distant as a second cousin.
A third clause in the policy further states that councilors should avoid the “appearance of a conflict of interest,” even if there is no technical conflict, by disclosing the interest.
“If, after disclosure, the councilor believes the interest will affect the councilor’s ability to make a fair and impartial decision faithful to the public interest, the councilor shall abstain from voting,” the policy states.
Since the Town Council has yet to vote on approving the zoning amendment, Watson said, the question hasn’t reached a point where he must disclose his relationship to Crooker.
“Once it goes into a public hearing, and we’re going to make a decision, then I’ll make a disclosure,” he said.
Regardless of who owns the property, Watson said he supports rezoning the area.
A new self-storage facility would add to the town’s tax revenue, he said, and aid families who live in three nearby mobile home parks and do not have easy access to storage space.
Watson represents District 1, which covers northeast Brunswick, and he lives about two miles from the proposed business.
“I have to vote,” he said. “I’ve been on the council for 13 years. I know when there’s a conflict of interest, and every time I’ve had a dealing where the Crookers were involved, I’ve always disclosed at the right time.”
His family relationship to Crooker is common knowledge, Watson added.
“Anybody who’s been living in Brunswick for any amount of time knows I’m related [to Crooker],” he said.
“This is a small town,” he continued. “If we all have to disclose our relatives there’d be no voting at all, unless a person came from away. There has to be a clear conflict of interest, in reality.”
Councilor Gerald Favreau, who has served on the council since 2006, said on Wednesday that he didn’t see any problem with Watson participating in the vote on rezoning, especially since Watson has disclosed the relationship in the past.
“I’m surprised he didn’t this time, everybody knows that’s his cousin,” he said. “I think he just forgot.”
In an email sent Wednesday, Council Chairman Benet Pols said that a discussion with the town’s attorney confirmed that Watson was not required to abstain for family reasons, because the rezoning would affect an entire district, with multiple property owners.
If the request affected only Crooker’s property, Watson would have had to abstain, Pols said.
He admitted it was a “narrow distinction,” given how small the district is: five of the eight parcels in question would be moved to Cooks Corner.
Turning to the appearance of a conflict of interest, Pols said it is “plainly an area that is subjective,” and one that asks councilors to be gatekeepers of the “propriety of their own actions.”
As far as he could recall, the chairman said, Watson has always disclosed his relationship in past cases when Crooker had business with the council. He said he should have reminded Watson of that fact before he voted this time, Pols said.
Pols also said the Crooker-Watson relationship is well known among councilors.
“I’m not saying that’s a justification,” Pols said. “If everybody on the council knows, it doesn’t mean everyone in the public knows.”
But among some councilors, the disclosure of Watson’s relationship to Crooker came as a surprise.
“Everybody does not know that,” Councilor Jane Millett said Wednesday, “and that should never be presumed.”
Millett said she was unaware of Watson’s relationship to Crooker until after last week’s vote, where she voted against tabling and setting a new public hearing date.
Although she was unsure if Watson violated council policy, Millett said she and other councilors, including Sarah Brayman and Steve Walker, have recused themselves from voting when matters involve business associates or organizations they are close to.
As a real estate agent, Millett said she has stepped aside on votes when members of her firm stood to receive commission in a property transaction.
She said she would welcome a review of the council’s ethics policy.
“I take conflict of interest very seriously,” Millett said.