AUBURN — Four Androscoggin County leaders must soon decide whether to vote on something that affects members of their own families.
"It's going to be tough," said Michael Bowie, chairman of the county's 11-member Budget Committee and one of the four with family ties. "I don't really know what I am going to do."
He'll likely decide when the murky issue — concerning a lingering health care benefit for some former officials — appears before his committee within the next week or two, he said.
The County Commission is debating whether to fund the decades-old benefit that provides lifetime health care coverage to elected officials who served as few as five years in office. In 2004, the three-member commission ended the benefit for newcomers. However, people who had already earned the benefit would get it. So would people already working for the county, if they complete eight years of service.
Currently, eight former elected leaders are receiving health care benefits, County Clerk Patricia Fournier said Tuesday. Along with them, six spouses are also covered. And, if nothing changes, two more people will get the benefit when they retire from county service.
That's where the connections come in.
Chairman Bowie's father-in-law is Henry Bernier, a former county commissioner who receives health care from the county. Bernier's daughter, Renee Bernier, is also on the Budget Committee.
Another former county commissioner, Patience Johnson, receives the benefit along with her husband, Paul Samson. His son, Mark Samson, is on the committee, too.
And, Budget Committee Vice Chairwoman Helen Poulin is married to County Treasurer Robert Poulin, one of the two currently serving officials who have earned the benefit upon retirement.
All Budget Committee members can vote on the benefit, Bowie said. "I'm going to leave it up to each individual committee member."
If they choose to vote, there may be no rule to stop them, said Cabanne Howard, a former lawyer with the Maine Attorney General's Office and an assistant professor at the University of Maine Law School.
Conflict-of-interest laws are mostly aimed at stopping people from handing out contracts for money. Statutes are filled with discussion of "direct or indirect pecuniary interest" as the deciding factor.
It is unlikely that Bowie, Bernier or Samson has anything to gain financially by the committee's decision, Howard said.
With Poulin, the situation may be closer to the conflict-of-interest line, Howard said. After all, she is married to the treasurer.
"I'm not sure if any of them qualify as a conflict of interest," Howard said.
But that's the law, not politics, he said.
District Attorney Norm Croteau warned members about the "perception of a conflict" when the Budget Committee held its first meeting on Nov. 10.
Robert Howe, director of the Maine County Commissioners Association, said Monday that he had never seen a situation with so many potential conflicts. Too many counties fight the perception that county government is an old-boys' network, he said.
It's the kind of rap that Mark Samson, whose father is covered by the benefit, wants to avoid. He plans to abstain from the vote.
"There is still in my mind a conflict of interest," he said.
The former state legislator from Auburn said he has abstained only one time in his career. In that case, the Legislature was voting on the FairPoint takeover of Verizon. At the time, his wife worked for Verizon.
The Sun Journal was unable to reach the other committee members in question. Poulin was unavailable Tuesday for comment. Renee Bernier declined to return phone calls.