ST. MICHAELS — In the wake of the early January circuit court decision handed down to the St. Michaels Ethics Commission, St. Michaels town commissioners opened their January legislative meeting in a defensive mode, with the reading of multiple statements disagreeing with the higher court’s findings.
A complaint of conflict of interest has been levied against Commission President William Boos in his discussions, decisions and voting record regarding the sale or transfer of a large parcel of town property the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum has been trying to acquire.
The nonbinding negotiations have been going on in closed meetings between the maritime museum and the town since before 2016.
Boos works for Curtis Stokes & Associates Yacht Brokerage, which has a contract selling luxury yachts and boats in the museum’s boat donation program.
The question of Boos’ conflict of interest has been brought before the St. Michaels Ethics Commission twice. First, Boos himself sought an advisory opinion, then a citizens group called the St. Michaels Action Committee LLC brought the matter to the commission as a complaint. Both times, Boos was cleared of conflict of interest.
SMAC felt its complaint hearing had not been conducted fairly and took the case of an unfair hearing to the Talbot County Circuit Court.
The higher court agreed its hearing had not been conducted properly and ordered the St. Michaels Ethics Commission to conduct another one. The order was dated Jan. 2, 2020.
On Tuesday evening, Boos read from a statement that also has been printed in The Star Democrat, “Make the hearing public,” in which he reminded those in attendance that he has not been found in violation of the town’s ethics laws, contrary to the claims of the St. Michaels Action Committee.
He said the Talbot County Circuit Court has ordered the ethics commission to hold another hearing, and the rules always have been that ethics commission meetings and hearings are held in closed session unless both parties agree they may be public.
“I call for the upcoming hearing to be public, that it be properly and completely noticed, and that it be held at a time and in a location so that whoever is interested may attend,” Boos read.
“I am eager to get the facts out to refute the misinformation, the innuendo and the personal attacks that have been perpetuated over the last several months against myself and others, and to support the prior decision of the committee,” Boos said.
Commission Vice President Michael Bibb read from a statement crafted by the commissioners’ “legal team.”
“We the commissioners and the three members of the ethics committee respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling and believe it could successfully appeal,” he read.
“We also believe, however, it is in the town’s best interest to put the matter behind without further litigation accordingly. The ethics commission will proceed with a hearing pursuant to the court order,” he read.
Those sentiments were reiterated by Commissioner Jaime Windon, who said that after a lengthy discussion in a closed meeting, the commissioners agreed it would best for the town if they did not appeal the circuit court decision and went ahead with the hearing the higher court had ordered.
“I think it’s important that all the commissioners make a statement, because there have been a number of articles in the paper,” she said. “They don’t always show every side of the story.”
“Especially after today’s article, which reported all of the facts that have occurred and taken place through the court, there was no opportunity from the ethics committee, from the town, from the commissioners or from town management,” Windon said, referring to The Star Democrat. “And I thought that was quite remiss.”
The commissioners praised the work of the St. Michaels Ethics Commission, which comprises unpaid volunteers.
“We the commissioners of St. Michaels wish to express our gratitude to the three members of the ethics commission, Peter Hartjens, John Hunnicutt and Chairman Sidney Davenport-Trond, for their time and efforts on behalf of the town,” Bibb said.
“They are citizen volunteers doing (what) many would find to be (a) thankless job,” Bibb said. “They have thoughtfully conducted the matters before them as they believed to be in accordance with the law and they have our full confidence going forward.”
While no set date has been set for the court-ordered ethics commission’s hearing, Commissioner Glackin said he believed there were two different dates in February that the commission was looking at.
In the meantime, the town commissioners crafted Resolution 2020-01, which would entitle Boos to be reimbursed for his legal expenses by the town.
After the resolution was read, Bibb said he thought the resolution should include all the commissioners and town employees.
“I don’t think we should single out one individual,” Bibb said. “The job we do is difficult at times. The way society is, you never know when you are going to get sued. We sit here and do our job as honestly as we can. We definitely need a resolution.”
Glackin suggested that, because time was of the essence, the commission could craft a second bill later to cover other commissioners and town employees. Boos’ legal fees will be coming up within the next 30 days.
There was some discussion about whether the funds should be paid if commissioners or employees are found guilty or not.
Town Manager Jean Weisman and Windon said the commissioners have legal insurance, but expense reimbursement from insurance on the Boos/ethics commission/conflict of interest case began when it was filed in circuit court in May and will run out soon.
After much discussion, the commission passed the resolution amended with some references to Boos changed to a blanket phrase, “commissioners.”
The resolution passed unanimously by four commissioners, Harrod, Bibb, Glackin and Windon, with Boos abstaining.
“I think it’s entirely just and proper that you did that,” St. Michaels resident Jim Fulton said. He also serves on the town’s historic district commission.”I hope you are going to give some thought to those who appear on other boards.”
“I think Mr. Fulton’s point is exactly on,” said resident Doug Rollow, who serves on the St. Michaels Board of Appeals. “(If) we are acting in good faith, we need to be indemnified.”
Later in the meeting, despite the pending litigation that questions Boos’ impartiality in making decisions on the large parcel that the maritime museum is trying to acquire, Boos did not recuse himself from voting to change that property’s designation to surplus, the first step in making it available for sale.
That controversial property, 301 Mill St., also known as the Skateboard Park property, was packaged with another property that has gotten a lot of attention from the town, 800 S. Talbot St., also referred to as the Boundary Lane property.
The commissioners lumped the two properties together and voted to have them designated as surplus by three-to-two, with Boos, Windon and Glackin voting in favor, and Harrod and Bibb voting against.
Town Manager Weisman said it probably would be at least two months before a resolution to surplus those two properties would be introduced, as the commission is thinking of dividing 800 S. Talbot St. into two lots, and there is a county pumping station on 301 Mill St. that needed to be surveyed and excluded during a potential sale.
They also voted to place the property at 109 Talbot St. on the market, which is the building that houses Long and Foster Realty. That sale is subject to the town’s reservation of a parking easement over the back portion of the property. The public hearing on placing 109 Talbot St. on the market will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 12.
Because of scheduling conflicts, the town commissioners have changed their monthly legislative meetings from the second Tuesday of the month to the second Wednesday of the month until at least May. The five commissioners approved the change unanimously Tuesday evening.
The next legislative meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, in the St. Michaels Town Office on Mill Street.