Question of Rielly's recusal clarified

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WESTBROOK — For years Council President Brendan Rielly has participated in budget deliberations, but has recused himself, as he did Monday night, from voting on the budget because of a potential “financial involvement” with the city and his employer.

Rielly, a partner with Jensen Baird Gardner and Henry, the city’s legal counsel, refrains because of his positions with his law firm and the city. Although he doesn’t provide legal services to the city, his firm does, and those fees make up a line item in the budget.

Through the years this arrangement has been questioned, including this year, prompting the council to ask the city solicitor Natalie Burns, a colleague of Rielly’s, to provide a legal opinion.

City ordinances state “a public official shall refrain from participation in a matter when there exists an actual, potential or reasonably perceived conflict of interest arising from a personal relationship or a financial involvement that would cause a reasonable person to believe that the public official cannot act in his or her official capacity without self-interest or bias.”

Burns said in an email to City Administrator Jerre Bryant that was handed out to councilors before first reading of the budget last week, that Rielly should “refrain from participation on the specific portion of the budget” where the conflict occurs, but can participate in “discussion and preliminary votes on matters not related to that portion of the budget.” But because the municipal budget is voted on as a whole and not department by department or line by line, Burns said  Rielly “should be recused from that final vote to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest.”

Burns goes on to say “the matter is not clearly addressed in the city’s ethics and conflicts of interest ordinance and my advice is based on perception language in the ordinance.” She notes state law dictates a conflict of interest exists “when someone has a 10 percent of greater ownership interest in a contract, which is not the case here.” Nevertheless, state statute also states “municipal officers should avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest by disclosure or abstention from the subject.”

While it has been allowed over the years, Bryant told the American Journal that Rielly’s deliberate-but-not-vote arrangement is not common.

“Procedurally, I have to say it is odd in that (he) would have a conflict to vote, but not a conflict to participate. Generally it is an all or nothing thing,” Bryant said.

Bryant said Jensen Baird Gardner & Henry has been the legal counsel for the city for at least the last 13 years. When the firm was hired, Rielly, a councilor since 2001, was not a partner and didn’t have the financial stake in the firm he has now. Bryant said the city has put its legal services contract out to bid twice, and Jensen Baird “was the winning bidder both times” in terms of cost and services performed.

Bryant has been happy with the legal services the firm has performed over the years.

“Jensen Baird has a really good municipal department. They have multiple attorneys with a lot of experience,” Bryant said.

Had Rielly not been able to deliberate in the budget process because of the conflict, the $68.4 million budget approved Monday may have looked a little bit different.

During the finance committee’s final review of the city budget April 23, Rielly made a motion to fund the recovery liaison through the budget and increase funding for the Intercultural Community Center and My Place Teen Center by $35,000. The motion passed 4-3 with Rielly and Councilors Lynda Adams, Ann Peoples and Anna Turcotte in support. Without Rielly’s participation that motion may not have been raised and if it had, could have stalled at a 3-3 vote. Also,  without Rielly’s participation, the results of motions to add $25,000 to the vehicle maintenance accounts and  reduce the school budget by $348,440,  which failed in a 4-3 vote, would have remained the same.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com or on Twitter @mkelleynews

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