A decision by four Bangor councilors to sign a letter in support of nurses in contract negotiations has some wondering if they violated a city ordinance requiring “nonpartisan” behavior from city councilors and employees.
The Bangor City Council is set to ask the city’s Board of Ethics to review that ordinance, the city’s code of ethics, following a Tuesday night discussion about the letter supporting around 20 home care and hospice nurses in their contract negotiations with Northern Light Health.
Four councilors — Clare Davitt, Sarah Nichols, Angela Okafor and Gretchen Schaefer — signed their names to the letter sent last month. The Maine State Nurses Association, which represents the nurses, has been in negotiations with the Brewer-based health care organization over the nurses’ labor contract.
During a meeting on April 6, Council Chair Dan Tremble said he was “a little alarmed” that the councilors had signed the letter because he said they had taken sides in contract negotiations with a local entity. The letter lists the councilors along with their City Council titles.
“If you take a position on a city issue as a councilor, it kind of reflects on the city as well,” Tremble said.
The city’s code of ethics requires that councilors be “fair, impartial and responsive” and that they not use their offices for personal gain. It states that councilors should act in a nonpartisan way and explicitly states they should not participate in election campaigns except when identifying their actions as separate from their role on the council.
The code also applies to city employees and those appointed to city boards and commissions.
Tremble said the nature of nonpartisanship went far beyond explicitly political activity such as election campaigns.
Councilor Jonathan Sprague said the letter and councilors’ participation in a related press conference surprised and troubled him.
“It seemed to be an organized political statement with other area legislators,” Sprague said. “It took me back as something that gave me a level of distrust.”
Councilors who signed the letter said they did not believe they were taking a partisan stance. Schaefer said the fact that she and three other councilors attached their titles was insignificant, as members of the community knew that each serves on the council.
The inability for councilors to take political stances makes little sense when residents elect councilors based on their positions on local issues of significance, Okafor said.
“How do you measure what is political and what has to do with issues that affect people’s day-to-day lives?” Okafor asked.
This is not the first time a councilor has been accused of violating the city’s code of ethics.
In 2015, some city officials said that then-Councilor Joe Baldacci had done so by writing a column in the Bangor Daily News that they said endorsed council candidates who supported raising Bangor’s minimum wage, an initiative Baldacci was sponsoring. Baldacci, now a state senator representing Bangor and Hermon, denied that the column contained any endorsements.
Most councilors on Tuesday spoke in favor of having the Board of Ethics review the ordinance.
The council’s government operations committee is set to examine the issue on May 3, city spokesperson Angel Matson said. That committee can refer the matter to the board of ethics, though any revision to the ordinance would need council approval.
Councilors hope to gain input from a number of sources before re-evaluating the ordinance. Nichols suggested that opinions be sought from the Maine Attorney General’s office, American Civil Liberties Union, Maine Municipal Association and Maine Ethics Commission. City Manager Cathy Conlow said councilors could also send their recommendations to the Board of Ethics.
Referral to the all-volunteer Board of Ethics would allow a neutral third party to examine the matter outside of the council, Schaefer said.
Sprague initially said the council should take the lead on potentially revising the ordinance rather than the board of ethics. Other councilors responded that the council would have a role in a review led by the Board of Ethics, and that any changes needed council approval.