LEWISTON — A Sun Journal analysis of e-mail messages shows some Lewiston city councilors having difficulty separating their public roles from their personal and business interests.
The messages show these councilors try to interject themselves into the day-to-day operations of the city in ways which at least one government expert calls "council-manic interference," which can negatively affect city staff performance and erode public trust.
"You can't have people running around asking for these kinds of special
favors," said Judy Nadler, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied
Ethics at the University of Santa Clara. "It gives the public the
impression that it really pays to know somebody, that inside
connections are the way you get things done."
Also a former two-term mayor and long-time city councilor in Santa Clara, Nadler conducts workshops and training camps for elected officials on ethically conducting the public's business
The Lewiston e-mail correspondence obtained under Maine's Freedom of Access Act include demands for opinions from the city's attorney, a request to the police chief to personally look into a colleague's son's overdue parking tickets and queries about city grants of federal funds for businesses either owned by or employing the councilors in question.
Previously documented council behavior includes an unannounced visit to a department head staff meeting and a roadside appearance during the arrest of a city councilor's family member in 2008.
The review of hundreds of e-mail messages shows at least three of Lewiston's sitting councilors may have walked up to and, on occasion, stepped over ethical lines that should never be crossed, Nadler said.
"If you have council members running around asking for or directing
various departments to do their own personal bidding, it creates
chaos," she said.
City officials, including recently fired City Administrator Jim Bennett and acting police Chief Michael Bussierre, said they felt the behavior and requests were not unusual for elected officials. Bussierre said all queries to him or his department by councilors or regular citizens are treated the same way.
"My job is to keep politics out of the department," Bussierre said.
Bennett said the e-mail communications in question did not represent any kind of "smoking gun" and maintained that disagreements over how the city should be managed were not a cause for his firing.
Nadler said that reaction is typical from government insiders whose jobs, promotions or reputations could be placed in jeopardy if they spoke openly.
Bussierre is a candidate to be the city's next police chief and Bennett has said all he wants in the wake of his firing, which was done without cause per a contract agreement, is "a chance to land on my feet."
Another city official, speaking anonymously, said this kind of interference by councilors has long plagued city operations.
Other messages show a desire by at least one, Ward 7 Councilor Bob Reed, to keep controversial actions from public scrutiny.
"Marty, Is there a need for a public vote on this or would an email from a majority of the council be sufficient?" Reed wrote to city attorney Martin Eisenstien.
State open meeting laws prohibit elected boards from voting by proxy via e-mail or telephone.
The message was part of a series of exchanges over whether individual councilors had the right to sit in on city staff meetings. Reed and Ward 4 Councilor Denis Theriault sought a legal opinion on the issue earlier this year after Bennett told Theriault he did not have the authority to join staff meetings uninvited.
After a three-hour executive session with Eisenstein and another attorney, which cost the city an estimated $3,000, the lawyer's legal opinion was made public, saying essentially that Bennett was right: Councilors had to act as a legislative body. The professional administrator, hired and fired by the council, is the boss of the city's department heads.
The behavior is a classic example of officials not understanding their roles in the type of government they serve, Nadler said. She said it was an example of how that lack of understanding can cost a city time and money and create stress for the staff.
Another classic pitfall, the assumption by elected officials that public government should be run like a private business, is also expressed in a message from Reed to Bennett on the issue.
"For me personally, I look at being a councilor much like being on the
Board of Directors of a corporation," Reed wrote. "If I have
concerns, I have a right to weed out those issues and make a
determination based on my observations."
But you can't and shouldn't run government the way you run private
business, Nadler said. "What government does affects the public and to that end, the actions of government need to be vetted in public or you erode all trust."
In another message to Bennett earlier this year, a beleaguered City Council President Tom Peters complained that he was disappointed with his time on the City Council.
"During the last year and a half serving as a member of the city
council has not been a pleasant experience," Peters wrote. "I am sure
it has not been pleasant for you and many staff who have been treated
with disrespect. I guess such is politics."
Peters went on to bemoan the issue that his own business could
be ineligible for grants for lead abatement from the city for
properties he and his partners, who have recently formed a real estate LLC, are buying.
"I find this hard to believe since I as a member of the council have
absolutely no say in who gets the grants or how it is administered,"
Peters wrote. "I oversee no city employee and have no authority to
direct anyone to do anything as a single member of the council."
Peters outlined his 15 years of service to the city and wrote that it seemed unfair his company would be denied the grants.
"I seek no special treatment and never have but then again I do not
wish to be treated other than as any other citizen because of a
potential conflict that has no basis in reality," Peters wrote. "Please
advise me as to the decision reached."
Nadler said it's the kind of message that seems innocuous, but because of Peters' access to Bennett it raises ethical questions. Another partner in the business would have been a more appropriate person to make the request to the city, and that person should have followed the channels all other businesses had to follow.
A similar request from Reed also gave Bennett pause, based on a message from the administrator to the councilor.
Reed had asked: "Is there any rehab money or anything we would be eligible for in
terms of downtown rehab that the city is aware of? We're
looking at a total project of $25K - $50K."
Reed noted that he was only an employee of the company and would in no
way benefit personally from the grant.
"There could be some issues because of the federal money
involved and your position as a City Councilor," Bennett wrote.
The City Charter states that councilors can be removed from office if they do not disclose and then
refrain from voting on issues they or their families may benefit from
Asked about the e-mail requests, Reed and Peters both said they didn't feel the funds in question presented any conflicts because the council had no say over who receives them. The councilors also had no individual power over the staff that administer these funds, Peters said.
"I don't have a say whether or not I would qualify," Peters said. He said it would be the same if a city councilor had to apply for public housing and was accused of having a conflict. Further, he said, the grants would go for what they were intended for to improve the living conditions for downtown apartment buildings.
In another incident, a police report obtained by the Sun Journal shows Ward 4 Councilor Denis Theriault showed up while his 24-year-old son was being arrested by police.
The officer involved in the arrest has declined to speak on the matter because the case never went to prosecution, but his official report of the incident shows Theriault was "upset" and the officer had to ask him to return to his vehicle and remain there while police completed the arrest.
The report also states Theriault was carrying some type of recording device when he approached the vehicle. Theriault declined comment on this story.
Bussierre would not comment on the specific incident, but said the Police Department remained independent. "We've arrested mayors, city councilors and people who work at City Hall in the past," he said.
In another e-mail message to Bussierre, Peters, a local lawyer, asked Bussiere to "investigate" the concerns an attorney colleague from Lisbon Falls expressed about letters that attorney's son received seeking to collect fines for overdue Lewiston parking tickets.
"I asked that (he) call your office and speak with you later today before he responds to the letters requesting discovery and doing what we lawyers do," Peters wrote. "(He) will explain the concerns and issues when he speaks with you and I would ask that you investigate his concerns."
Bussierre said he did not recall the message specifically but that Peters and about a dozen other people had voiced concerns about a new system for billing parking fines. The new billing made it appear that people owed more than they actually did. Bussierre declined to comment on whether it was appropriate for a sitting councilor to ask the police to intervene on behalf of a colleague's son, but said he believes the tickets were eventually paid.
On the parking ticket issue Peters said he treated the situation as he would any request from a constituent for help.
But Martha Perego, the ethics and advocacy director for the
International City Managers Association, said the content of a message
matters. Perego, who has 17 years of experience in city government in
Pennsylvania, much of it as a city manager, largely agreed with Nadler
that the examples of the communications here are ethically challenged.
"Here you have somebody
who is higher up in the food chain than you are, that has already taken
a position and has given you a directive to do something," Perego said.
The message is better directed to the administrator in a general way
because the administrator is the person directly in charge of the
staff and the person who can coordinate a meaningful answer.
something to take to the administrator and say something like, 'I have
heard from five people there is an issue with these parking tickets,
can you look into it and get back to me?'" Perego said.
Nadler said most members of the public would not believe they could directly contact the police chief, for example. They also wouldn't expect, that if they did, it would result in intervention from the chief on their behalf.
"But I'll tell you
if somebody from an elected office calls the police chief, the police
chief is going to listen and probably do something," she said.
Perego said that some of the issues in Lewiston are also seen in
city government around the country. Some of it stems for elected
officials not fully understanding their roles, but that isn't always the
"You are likely to find in any body of people a couple who don't
understand how the organization works or just don't want to play in
that system," Perego said. This kind of behavior can become ingrained
in a local government's culture so that even a change of councilors
will not always eradicate the interference.
"There are places where the culture of understanding the role of the
council and the role of the manager is so strong that when you see this
kind of intereference, then the other council members say, 'Look that's
not the way we do business,'" Perego said.
Nadler said the messages between some of the elected officials are also examples
of the kind of breakdowns in civility that erode the public's confidence in its government or discourage "good people" from getting involved in government in the first place.
Messages from Reed to the entire council and Mayor Gilbert include allegations that Gilbert and other councilors may have purposely "leaked information" to the Sun Journal.
"I am absolutely disgusted that someone in this very small group has decided to not keep confidential a matter which should have been and if I can ever find out who did so, I will publicly ask for their resignation," Reed wrote.
Another missive from Reed admonishes Gilbert for speaking too long on an issue during a council meeting.
Reacting to a message Bennett sent to the council advising them that Theriault's drop-in visit on the department head meeting bordered on creating "a hostile work enviroment," Theriault and Reed wrote back their own missives.
"Interesting that you would choose to attempt to reprimand a Councilor in front of a staff member," Theriault wrote. " Your actions in this matter constitutes the creation of a hostile environment not mine. Intimidation will not work with me Mr. Bennett."
After the meeting with Eisenstien on that issue, several councilors and Gilbert spoke with the media saying they felt the meeting should have been held in public.
Reed again went on the offensive.
"We came out of that meeting saying, 'No comment,'" Reed wrote to Gilbert, "and to change that position now only proves to the public how stupid we are and will make them question why we even went into executive session in the first place — something that is already occurring due to comments already out there as pointed out in the original email."
Gilbert fired back:
"Bob, You've had a busy day telling us all what to do," the mayor wrote. "I would urge you to relax. We're all big boys and we can figure out what to do on our own. The Blog might be your best forum."
Nadler said this type of disruptive communication eventually trickles down to city staff and out to the public.
The more councilors are unable to work together, the more they may seek to achieve things independently by circumventing the process, which can create another vicious circle, Nadler said. This is especially true as elections near, she said.
The more frustrated officials become and the closer it gets to Election Day, the more desperate officials seeking re-election can get, she said. It's also when they forget why they entered into city politics in the first place or lose sight of the collective goals of the city and the voters, Nadler said.
"When you take the oath of office you pledge to put the interests of the city above all other interests, your own personal interests, any financial interests you may have or your political interests," Nadler said. "It's easy to do the night or the day you're sworn in, but not so easy when you are up for re-election or when you cross swords with somebody on the city council."