The Bangor Board of Ethics voted unanimously Wednesday to approve a new rule that would allow city councilors to express their political viewpoints while making clear that they’re not speaking for the city.
The new code is less ambiguous than the one it would replace, with the framers aiming to balance the First Amendment rights of Bangor officials with language that will maintain the city’s neutrality and not align it with viewpoints or organizations it doesn’t officially support.
“The whole idea is to separate personal discourse from public duties,” Board of Ethics Chair Michael Alpert said.
The review came after four councilors signed a letter in late March supporting Northern Light Health nurses in contract negotiations, leading some to wonder whether the councilors violated the code’s ban on partisan behavior. That event was alluded to, though not explicitly discussed in Wednesday’s meeting.
The ordinance will still need to go to the City Council before being enshrined into the city’s code. The council’s government operations committee had sent the issue to the ethics committee so that a neutral body would write the ordinance.
The ordinance references a councilor’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech but also specifies how officials can disconnect the city from organizations or viewpoints they individually support. It recommends that officials use disclaimers when they speak on such issues, such as “I make these remarks in a personal capacity.”
Bangor is one of the few population centers in Maine that has an explicit ban on certain political speech from officials, a review of city codes and charters found. Officials can be censured, though not removed, by the City Council for actions that violate the ban on partisanship.
Members of the ethics panel debated how the ordinance would work in practice and whether the ordinance should be more specific. Assistant City Solicitor Josh Saucier also played an important role in the discussion.
While it suggests ways to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest, the ordinance stayed more general. Alpert said the intent was clear.
“We need to respect the fact that people elected, by-and-large, have good will, are trustworthy and will understand from our language what they are expected to do,” he said. “Otherwise, we are going to have an ordinance that is a book in itself.”