December 13, 2019
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Fight over local council seat could end up in federal court

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Voters fill out ballots in the gym at Gorham Middle School in this 2018 file photo. Janet Kuech, an ed tech at an elementary school, said she will sue the town after it refused to seat her after she won a council seat in last week’s election.

A Gorham school employee who won a Town Council seat in last week’s election and then was barred from taking her seat by that body said she will take the town to federal court.

The Gorham Town Council voted not to seat Janet Kuech in a 4-3 vote on Tuesday after she won an open Town Council seat last week, saying she qualifies as a town employee under Gorham’s charter and therefore cannot serve.

The decision could be an expensive one. It triggers a special election within 90 days and leaves a seat on the council vacant, and an attorney hired by the Maine Education Association, a teachers’ union, said Wednesday he plans to file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court next week.

A similar conversation is happening in Yarmouth, currently embroiled in a federal lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and residents over a charter amendment passed last November prohibiting municipal or school employees from being elected to town council.

Attorney Jonathan Goodman of Portland-based Troubh Heisler said the council is infringing on Kuech’s constitutional right to serve in public office and her right to hold a job. He argued a candidate’s position with a town should be weighed against the impact they could have on town operations and said Kuech could recuse herself from anything affecting school business.

“I don’t know how they think one of me on a group of seven people can unduly influence a bond vote or a budget,” Kuech said.

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN
Janet Kuech

Minutes from Tuesday’s special meeting show councilors felt Kuech, an educational technician at Gorham’s Narragansett Elementary School, would have an “inherent conflict of interest” when it comes to issues related to the school district, such as the budget and a proposal to expand the high school.

They also said seating Kuech would “upset the balance of power” and set a precedent allowing the council to be composed entirely of town or school employees. The town’s charter states council members can “hold no office of emolument or profit under the Town Charter or Ordinances.”

Kuech, who has lived in the town for 21 years, said she was disappointed by the decision. A frequent attendee of Town Council and school committee meetings, Kuech said she had hoped to use her position to foster understanding between the two bodies.

Paul Smith, who lost a reelection bid Nov. 5 and stepped down after the special meeting, voted against Kuech’s appointment on Tuesday. The council voted 6 to 1 that he did not have a conflict of interest prior to the final decision.

“I’m not saying she can’t be a school teacher and serve, just not a school teacher in this town,” he said Wednesday.

Smith pointed to current councilor Ronald Shepard, a former police chief who retired on Election Day in 2014 before winning an unopposed race, according to the American Journal.

But Town Council Chair Ben Hartwell, who voted to seat Kuech, said the municipal employee ordinance does not include school employees. He said the town should change its ordinances to explicitly say town and school employees cannot serve if Yarmouth wins its federal suit.

“I don’t feel that the decision was made was based on what the charter actually says but what they want the charter to say,” he said.

 



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