Conflict of interest? Selectman who voted on I-395 project stands to benefit

Posted April 27, 2016, at 6:54 p.m.
Last modified April 28, 2016, at 10:18 a.m.

EDDINGTON, Maine — A local selectman and state representative who owns a business that could benefit directly if the proposed I-395-Route 9 connector is built has cast votes pertaining to the project and publicly supported it, raising questions about whether his actions violate local and state conflict-of-interest regulations governing elected officials.

Peter Lyford, who is a state representative for Eddington, Clifton, Holden, Veazie and part of Brewer, spoke before a legislative committee in opposition to a bill designed to stop the connector project last year, and voted on a resolution and a motion dealing with the controversial roadway during separate Eddington selectmen meetings in 2015, according to a town official.

Lyford, who owns a landscaping business, said Tuesday that he did not notify the Legislature’s Transportation Committee that he planned to bid on reseeding the sides of the proposed roadway when he testified against a bill proposed by Rep. Arthur “Archie” Verow, D-Brewer, to stop the controversial roadway’s construction.

“I don’t believe it is,” Lyford said Tuesday when asked by the BDN if he had a conflict of interest. “I’m representing everybody in town, certainly people on this end of town.”

In the first vote by Eddington selectmen last year, Lyford supported a nonbinding resolution backing the state’s route for the $61 million, two-lane road, designed to ease heavy truck traffic and improve safety on nearby Routes 46 and 1A.

In the second local vote, six months later, Lyford opposed a motion stipulating that selectmen would take no action on any resolve about the project, which nullified the February vote, Town Manager Russell Smith said. That motion passed 4-1.

Despite the vote against the town taking a position, Lyford since has spoken publicly in favor of the project.

Lyford, who first was elected to the Board of Selectmen in March 2010 and was elected as a Republican state representative in November 2014, owns P.A. Lyford Inc., a commercial landscaping and hydroseeding company that has a history of contracting with the Maine Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the connector plan.

Gretchen Heldmann, Eddington Planning Board vice chairwoman, wrote a letter to selectmen in March questioning Lyford’s actions. Heldmann wrote that Lyford’s business website “states multiple times throughout that they work extensively on MDOT State projects. Therefore, a reasonable person could also assume there is some possible financial interest Selectman Lyford has in this proposed connector project.

“At what point are these items considered over the line and a direct conflict of interest?” she asked. “I believe Selectman Lyford should have recused himself.”

Lyford conceded Tuesday that “I suppose there is a possibility” of a conflict of interest, but then added, “but nobody has complained.”

After being reminded of Heldmann’s letter, Lyford said that unless asked to make a change by the town manager or the Board of Selectmen’s chairperson, he did not plan to do anything differently. He then called the town manager.

“If anything else comes up [regarding the connector] he probably will” recuse himself, Smith said Wednesday after speaking to Lyford.

When asked about his recent statements in support of the DOT project, made in direct conflict with resolves passed in three of the five communities he represents, Lyford said, “I did that as a citizen.”

“I am in favor of the I-395-Route 9 extension. I live on [Route] 46 and have for 40 years,” Lyford said in a previous interview on Friday.

On at least one occasion, however, Lyford identified himself as an elected official when he endorsed the connector. He introduced himself as, “Peter Lyford, representative of District 129,” before speaking in favor of the project at a recent meeting of the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System’s policy committee. He made no mention of his business history with the MDOT before speaking.

Later in his presentation he called himself an elected official and said he supported the connector for safety and economic reasons.

“It’s going to be a large economic stimulus package for the area,” Lyford said of the project at the BACTS meeting. “It’s going to put a lot of people to work.”

Town attorney Charles Gilbert said Friday he would not comment on Lyford’s situation specifically, but said in general such actions by an elected official could be violations.

“It’s a state law. If there is a financial interest, there can be a conflict of interest,” Gilbert said.

Under Maine law, an elected official cannot vote on questions in which that official has a direct or indirect financial interest. Any action taken by a body such as a board of selectmen is voidable if a member with a financial interest casts a vote, according to the statute.

Gilbert noted, however, that Eddington will make no binding votes regarding the I-395-Route 9 connector project, and that Lyford simply could recuse himself from connector route votes in the future to avoid the appearance of conflict.

In addition to the state law, Lyford may have violated the town’s ethics policy, which says selectmen should not benefit financially from any town decisions and that those in such a position should not discuss or vote on such matters.

Lyford said that he planned to bid on hydroseeding for the connector project.

“We certainly would bid on it,” Lyford said last week.

He said there is no conflict of interest because he is not guaranteed the job. Lyford said he expects a dozen companies, some from outside Maine, to bid on the project.

After finding out Tuesday that Lyford said he planned to bid on the I-395-Route 9 project, Smith said there “could be” a conflict. Especially since Lyford is listed on the town’s website as a contact for those who have questions about the connector.

Amended resolution

After concerns about the town’s stance on the connector route were raised at the selectmen’s meeting on April 18, Smith looked at records and determined two votes were held in 2015 about the proposed route and Lyford participated in both.

At a February 2015 selectmen’s meeting, the board voted 3-2 to support the state’s preferred route — 2B2 — after years of opposing the controversial MDOT project. Lyford did more than simply vote on the resolution, he made a successful motion to amend it substantially.

The original order opposed the connector, but after a short discussion, “a call for the vote was made and resulted in a motion by Peter Lyford to sign in favor of the 2B2 route, changing the words ‘does not support’ to ‘we do support,’” the town manager said. “Charles Baker Jr., seconded the motion.”

Lyford and Mike Shepherd, who both live on Route 46, and Baker supported the new resolve and Chairwoman Joan Brooks and Charles Grover, then vice chairman, voted in opposition.

Six months later, the board again took up the issue, but this time voted to stay neutral.

“We voted on the resolve [in February] but we never signed the resolve,” Smith said. “It wasn’t until Aug. 4 that we discussed it again, under unfinished business.”

During the Aug. 4, 2015, meeting, the board discussed whether to support the rewritten resolve, then voted 4-1, with Lyford dissenting, not to take any action in regard to the connector. That was also the first meeting for new Selectman Mark Carreira, who replaced Grover.

Despite the no-action vote, Lyford has issued statements in support of the state’s preferred route, adding to confusion among residents about where the town stands on the matter, said the town manager and others.

Resident Rodney Buswell Sr. said in a letter to the town dated April 11 that he was upset that town leaders voted to support the state’s preferred route. His letter was discussed at the April 18 selectmen’s meeting.

“We often see issues come up in Augusta and Washington where it seems that even though the voting public does not agree, our officials do as they see fit,” Buswell’s letter states. “It would appear that we have the same thing here in Eddington. Our town officials are here to represent the citizens of Eddington. They did not do it this time.”

When it was time to discuss Buswell’s letter, “A lot of people stood up … and asked whether the town plans to support [the connector],” said Teresa Montague of Clifton, who ran against Lyford for his state representative’s seat in 2014.

At a March meeting of the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System’s policy committee where members said they felt forced to approve a new three-year plan that includes the I-395-Route 9 connector or risk losing $57 million in road project funding this year for the Bangor region, Lyford was the lone person to speak in favor of the state’s preferred route.

Eddington residents and officials have participated in meetings about the connector since 2000, including hosting a MDOT public hearing in May 2012 where Chairwoman Brooks delivered a petition opposing the connector signed by 390 residents. Heldmann, who was a member of the planning board at the time, sued MDOT for information about the project in 2013.

When asked how he could speak in support of a project that 390 Eddington residents oppose, Lyford said the group of petition signers only represents a portion of the community.

“The town is made up of 2,400 people, and 390 is only a small portion of that,” Lyford said.

Eddington has around 1,700 registered voters, a town clerk said.

Some residents have suggested having a townwide vote on the connector proposal, but the town manager said nothing is planned.

“At this point in the game we probably will not revisit the issue,” Smith said.

 

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