Selectmen may be too closely related

TREMONT — Concerns about possible bias because of family relationships led to a clunky selectmen’s meeting here last week.

Prior to the meeting, selectman Howard ‘Howdy’ Goodwin approached Town Manager Chris Saunders to cite possible conflict of interest because he is related to someone with business before the board. State law specifies how close a family relationship may be in order for a municipal official to make an unbiased decision.

Goodwin and fellow selectman Mike Mansolilli are first cousins once removed, giving them five degrees of “consanguinity,” or blood or marital relationship. Anything less than six requires written permission from the remaining members of the board stating they feel the official can make an unbiased decision. Or, the family member must recuse themselves from any vote regarding decisions that affect members of their family.

One might ask, how exactly does any town business get accomplished in Maine, if this is the case? In many towns throughout the state there are multiple generations participating in their municipal government or running successful businesses in the same town. Sometimes it is the latter that chokes up the process, as was the case with Mansolilli at the meeting.

Selectman McKenzie Jewett was absent from the Sept. 17 meeting, leaving four board members at the table.

Mansolilli, who owns MDI Property Maintenance and Management, was the primary contractor to place a bid on the Bass Harbor Public Library addition in June. That bid came in beyond the financial budget the library’s board of trustees had in place, so the project was sent back to the architect for a rework.

Once the meeting began, the selectmen were scheduled to approve warrants, as they do at the beginning of most meetings. Mansolilli said he had a conflict for three of the warrants. Goodwin followed suit, citing familial bias, and the board decided they needed to postpone approval until Jewett was in attendance.

“We have some bills that if we don’t pay, we can incur some late charges,” Saunders said in response.

In order to address that issue, selectmen scheduled a special meeting for Monday, Sept. 24.

In addition to tabling the warrant items, selectmen also tabled the discussion regarding the addition to the library building. “We’re having trouble coming up with a quorum tonight,” Chairman Kevin Buck said.

A few agenda items later, in an attempt to be proactive, Selectman Jamie Thurlow decided to recuse himself from a discussion regarding Thurston’s Lobster Pound. Citing a second cousin’s connection to the owners of the lobster pound, Thurlow stepped down from the meeting table.

At this point, a member of the public in the audience stated loudly enough for all to hear, “Everyone’s related to everybody.”

Mansolilli asked Thurlow if he felt he could make an unbiased decision on the matter. Thurlow said he could.

Buck said Thurlow knew more about the town’s wharf than the rest of the board and his insight would be appreciated.

Thurlow returned to the meeting table under the condition that the board grant written permission for him to be there. A motion in favor is considered written permission because minutes of the meeting are recorded.

Similar to the trivia game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” remaining unbiased due to a separation of six degrees in most Maine towns is difficult.

“The truth is, there are some towns in Maine where you have fewer than 100 people,” said Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association. “In places like that it is hard to avoid.”

Thankfully, in Tremont there are more than 1,100 year-round residents. Usually, decisions by boards are relatively easy to address, except in the case of an absent member.

It can also be difficult to understand lineage, especially these days where there can be many branches to the family tree, some by a second marriage or third.

“We all know what immediate family is,” said Conrad. “After that it gets tougher … I get calls like this a couple times a year.”

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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