Applause for the effort, but proposed bylaw changes contemplated by the Brunswick Development Corporation do not go far enough in stemming the appearances of impropriety that prompted their revision in the first place. The quasi-municipal development corporation needs to go back to the drawing board.
Recall the BDC took some heat this summer for providing a $247,000 loan to Brunswick Taxi that’s completely forgivable — no interest, no payback — if the company hires four new full-time employees, among other conditions. We fretted in this space it was a deal not just anyone could get, one most commercial banks would laugh at, and an example of winning via political, not business, savvy.
Brunswick Taxi is owned by Dale King, the husband of Joanne King, who served on the Town Council and BDC as recently as December 2012.
After tabling discussion for a month, the BDC got back into reform mode this week prior to what it says will be a final vote the first week of December. Changes were scheduled for presentation during BDC’s Oct. 23 meeting, but the panel was busy awarding $328,000 in new funding to local businesses and needed to postpone the bylaws discussion until this month.
That the BDC continues to do business under existing rules is bad enough. That the board has failed to address the underlying matter on conflicts of interest is worse — and puzzling.
Proposed changes include trading an ex-officio position, currently held by town Finance Director John Eldridge, for a seat to be occupied by a private citizen, which would switch the makeup of the board from 4-3 in favor of town-appointed positions to 4-3 weighted toward so-called “public members” with experience in business, law or municipal development.
That’s good, although the “public members” — appointed by the BDC board, some of whom are town councilors — still may not be much further than arm’s length away from town officials than they are now. We’ll see.
Another change would require board members to sign conflict-of-interest and code-of-ethics statements annually. Very good.
One change would allow members to attend executive sessons by teleconference. An odd addition, because public boards usually cherish the sanctity of their private talks. Teleconferencing an executive session invites the NSA and anyone else within earshot a chance to pry. So one wonders whether the board is doing enough to shield the proprietary information of businesses with proposals before the board.
But here’s where the proposed changes really fall flat.
Regarding conflicts of interest — the underlying matter in the Brunswick Taxi case — the board proposes:
“No Brunswick Development Corporation director, state elected official or Brunswick town councilor shall apply to be eligible to receive from the BDC financial assistance in the form of a loan or grant while in office and for a period of one year after leaving office.”
See anything in there about relatives of public officials being barred from applying? How about associates of corporations tied to public officials? We don’t.
And that’s the crux of the matter. The BDC has to separate the business interests of public servants from any business interests they, their kin or their agents may have. These changes don’t accomplish that. So Brunswick Taxi happens all over again.
Unquestionably, the BDC is a net positive. Funded by public seed money, however, we continue to believe it is fully a public entity, in all but a legal sense. As such, it needs to be very clear its mission is about the larger business interests of the town, not the public officials who created it and who populate its board.
Those two can be one in the same — even in the Brunswick Taxi situation. But the public doesn’t perceive it that way — and they won’t until it’s fixed.