Column: Mayor Jonathon LaBonte has a conflict of interest problem

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Jonathan LaBonte, Auburn’s mayor and Gov. Paul LePage’s director of Office of Policy and Management, has a conflict of interest problem that becomes more obvious every day.

LaBonte was already serving as mayor in June 2014, when Gov. LePage appointed him to the state post. Instead of stepping down as mayor to work for the governor, LaBonte opted to remain in municipal office and recently filed an election petition late last month for a second two-year term.

Auburn’s charter flatly prohibits the mayor from holding any other elective position or from being employed by the city during his term. Though that rule doesn’t apply in LaBonte’s situation, the city’s Code of Ethics contains a provision that covers a wider array of actual, potential and perceived conflicts of interest.

Under the Code, a public official must refrain from “participation in a matter when there exists an actual, potential or reasonably perceived conflict of interest arising from a …financial involvement that would cause a reasonable person to believe that the public official cannot act in his official capacity without self-interest or bias.” “Financial involvement” is defined to include a public official’s “employment relationship.”

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In his state role, LaBonte has advocated for the governor’s controversial positions on issues that are, or can reasonably be perceived as, at odds with the city’s interests, most notably the proposed elimination of revenue sharing and refusal to issue bonds for land conservation.

LaBonte failed to join many of Maine’s other mayors in criticizing the governor’s proposal to terminate over $60 million in annual revenue sharing funding to Maine’s towns and cities. Quite the contrary, starting in January he participated in a road show of public presentations to explain and promote LePage’s budget, using these occasions to try to minimize the importance of revenue sharing.

If the Legislature had passed the governor’s budget (which it didn’t), the loss of revenue sharing would have impacted Auburn’s revenues, costing nearly $1.5 million in fiscal 2015-16, and would almost certainly have resulted in a real-estate tax hike. In exchange for revenue sharing, Auburn would have gained the right to tax the city’s few nonprofits owning property valued at more than $500,000, a minimal advantage to the city’s treasury and a substantial detriment to the nonprofits.

LaBonte has been caught in an even more awkward position regarding the governor’s decision to continue withholding $6.47 million in Land for Maine’s Future  bonds, approved by voter referendum in 2010. LePage claims he isn’t against LMF but has refused to issue the bonds unless the Legislature allocates $5 million in revenues from timber harvesting on state lands to low-income heating assistance.

From 2008 to 2014, LaBonte was executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving land of ecological importance, working farms and forests, and developing recreational trails and river access points along the Androscoggin River Greenway (of which Auburn forms a part).

The Trust conserves about 5,000 acres and over 10 miles of riverfront. It takes lots of money to buy land tracts and easements for conservation and recreational use, and the LMF program provides an important source of matching funds for this purpose. Indeed, LaBonte was critical of LePage in 2012 for refusing to issue LMF bonds when the Trust, under his leadership, was trying to close a project that involved Verso paper mill land in Canton and Jay.

Unfortunately LePage’s standoff with the Legislature has delayed issuance of the bonds for so long that authorization for them will expire this November, well before the mechanics of selling them can be completed. In addition, the delay endangers deals already struck with private landowners.

LePage also announced in March that he wanted to personally evaluate each of the proposed LMF projects to see which should be funded, and his spokeswoman later clarified that LaBonte’s office would “conduct a thorough review of these projects” and “ensure all guidelines pertaining to the LMF bond process have been followed.”

LaBonte himself admitted proposing the review to LePage, suggesting his expertise in land conservation projects would be an advantage.

“As I’ve said to my (land conservation) colleagues,” LaBonte remarked, “Wouldn’t you prefer to have somebody who has worked in this field and was a colleague in your efforts?'”

Actually they wouldn’t! LaBonte’s “colleagues,” who included the heads of Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and Nature Conservancy in Maine, urged legislators to override LePage’s veto of a bill, LD 1378, that would have prohibited the governor from withholding voter-approved bonds for political reasons. Besides, by statute the LMF board is required to report periodically to the Legislature, not to the Governor’s Office.

LaBonte would be in a conflict-of-interest position regardless of who was occupying the Blaine House, but, with Paul LePage as governor, the problem is particularly acute. If there’s one thing LePage’s supporters and opponents can probably agree on, it’s that he doesn’t willingly accept “no” for an answer.

LaBonte wouldn’t last two seconds if he stood toe-to-toe with the governor and argued, “You shouldn’t do that, because it would harm my constituents in Auburn,” or appeared before the Legislature to advocate a position at odds with LePage’s.

All of which raises the question: Why has LaBonte stayed on as mayor? His salary in the post is only $4,000, while his state job pays six figures. The Auburn mayoral position is more ceremonial than politically powerful. The state job, by contrast, carries real policy-making power, because it’s plugged into the governor’s power.

I can only assume that LaBonte, who’s an ambitious and tireless self-promoter, wants the public exposure that comes with being mayor. He’s already parlayed a fairly thin resume (see his bio on the city’s website) and uncontested elections to two local offices (the Auburn mayoralty and Androscoggin County Commission) into considerable political visibility.

Perhaps he sees himself as LePage’s successor. (After all, the governor vaulted into the State House from the post of mayor of Waterville).

If so, LaBonte may not be doing himself any favors, because conflicts of interest have a way of leading to messy, embarrassing situations that can ruin political careers. And he’s certainly not doing any favors for the city whose interests he’s supposed to be serving.

Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is the founder of Museum L-A and author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be reached at epsteinel@yahoo.com.

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