Conflict of interest?
Mayor’s role in pier process questioned
By Chris Busby
Some members of the Portland City Council are calling for Mayor Nick Mavodones to recuse himself from consideration of private development proposals for the Maine State Pier. They say Mavodones’ job as operations manager for Casco Bay Lines constitutes a conflict of interest – or at least the strong appearance of a conflict – given that both proposals under consideration include a new freight-handling facility for the ferry service.
Mavodones said he does not plan to step aside as the council takes up its consideration of the proposals. He presided last night during the council’s first informational workshop session on the plans submitted by Ocean Properties and The Olympia Companies.
“At this point, I don’t personally see an issue with conflict of interest,” Mavodones told The Bollard. But if the council decides to enter negotiations with one of the developers, and those negotiations result in a tentative agreement that includes a new freight shed for his employer, Mavodones said he’ll “look more closely” at the potential for a conflict between his public and professional roles.
City attorney Gary Wood advised Mavodones on the potential for conflict of interest in late spring. In a July 19 memo to Mavodones that Wood forwarded to other councilors, he wrote that the mayor does not have a conflict “in the classic conflict of interest sense, defined by state law as one that would involve an elected official voting on something from which they could get a personal financial gain.”
Wood added, however, that during final consideration of a pier development deal, if it includes components that could “impact” the ferry service, Mavodones may be compelled to “disclose that potential ‘conflict’” and inform council colleagues of his decision to either recuse himself or vote on the matter.
“If a majority of the Council disagrees with your conclusion at that point in time, then they could vote to disqualify you,” Wood noted.
City Councilor Dave Marshall isn’t content to wait that long. “I see that he’s got a strong conflict of interest,” Marshall said. “The mayor should recuse himself from all meetings involving the Maine State Pier from this point forward.”
City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, whose district includes the pier, agrees. “The appearance of a professional conflict of interest is compelling enough for a recusal,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Bollard.
Marshall and Donoghue say even though no final deal is on the table, the developers’ proposals at this point contain different financial offers for the ferry service, so Mavodones should recuse himself from the process of picking one over the other.
For example, a financial analysis conducted for the city by an outside advisor determined that Olympia’s plan for a 5,000-square-foot freight shed would cost Casco Bay Lines $90,000 in annual lease payments. By contrast, Ocean Properties would collect less than $40,000 in annual lease payments for the slightly smaller shed it would construct as part of its project.
“The development team offering the best rent for [Casco Bay Lines] may not be the best bet for the City of Portland,” Donoghue wrote.
“It’s in the interest of [Mavodones] as management to save his company money,” said Marshall, and Ocean Properties is offering Casco Bay Lines a better deal.
Olympia spokesperson Sasha Cook said, “from Nick’s perspective, it might be in his best interest to recuse himself. That way, going forward, no one can point a finger and say, ‘You were conflicted.’”
Allegations of political cronyism and impropriety have already been leveled by proponents of Olympia’s plan, and the company has threatened to sue the city over its management of the selection process thus far. [See "Threats and confusion plague State Pier process," July 11, in News.]
City Councilor Jim Cohen has already recused himself because of his professional relationship with an advisor to one of the would-be developers, Mike Saxl. Saxl, a former Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, leads the legal advocacy and public relations firm Main Street Solutions, part of the law firm Verrill Dana, and is working for Olympia. Cohen is employed by Verrill Dana and active with its Maine Street Solutions subsidiary, though he has not publicly associated himself with Olympia’s bid.
Mavodones said the ferry service doesn’t necessarily need a new freight shed. Plans to build one at the foot of Compass Park were scrapped several years ago due to concerns that section of the pier could not support the weight of such a structure. A new loading gate with some freight-handling capacity was built instead.
Mavodones said Casco Bay Lines will likely reevaluate its freight-handling needs after its fall season. [Disclosure: This reporter's wife, Meghan Busby, is an operations agent at Casco Bay Lines whose duties include handling freight; Mavodones is her boss.]