St. Michaels ethics complaint reaches circuit court

A group of concerned citizens have filed a petition in Talbot County Circuit Court after its complaint to the St. Michaels Ethics Commission did not get a fair hearing, according to a statement released to The Star Democrat last week.

ST. MICHAELS — A group of concerned citizens has filed a petition in Talbot County Circuit Court alleging its complaint to the St. Michaels Ethics Commission did not get a fair hearing, according to a statement released to The Star Democrat.

The St. Michaels Action Committee LLC has argued that St. Michaels Commission President William Boos may have violated two sections of the town’s ethics ordinance in his dealings, decision-making and voting record favoring the proposed sale of a large St. Michaels town lot to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.

Many feel the property would be a good site for the new town office, new police station or both.

“We went to the Ethics Commission expecting to get a hearing,” the statement from SMAC read. “Instead, the Ethics Commission dismissed our complaint.

“Apparently the commission met without notice to us and without invitation for us to attend. The commission apparently relied on unknown evidence that was not disclosed to us. The commission resolved factual issues and made factual findings. We had no opportunity to present our side of the case.”

SMAC filed the complaint with the town Ethics Commission on April 10, and the dismissal was received May 2. The petition to Talbot County Circuit Court was submitted May 31.

Public allegations of the appearance of conflict of interest for Boos began at the town’s Jan. 10 legislative meeting, when more than one resident made statements about his actions appearing to be swayed in favor of a proposed “property swap” between the town and the museum.

Boos is an agent for Curtis Stokes & Associates yacht brokers, which sells boats for the museum. The museum has been negotiating a real estate deal with the town for more than three years, out of the public eye until recently.

The original proposal involved a town-owned 1.2-acre parcel that formerly served as a skateboard park, across the street from the town office on Mill Street.

The proposed deal suggested it would be exchanged for a small strip of land, roughly 1/6 of an acre, at the end of Mill Street that the museum owns, adjacent to the town parking lot.

In more recent months, the idea of “swapping” properties has been mentioned less and less, with more of a push from the museum to acquire the skateboard park.

Many residents have expressed the idea that the old skateboard park would be a prime location for a new municipal building, town office or police station, or complex of the two.

Over the course of the year, citizens at town meetings have asked the commissioners to consider the location, but the commissioners, led by Boos, refused to do an independent feasibility study, saying the decisions had been made.

By consistent 3-2 votes, the commissioners advanced plans to locate the new town office on Fremont Street, and by consistent 2-2 votes that failed, they refused to allow the Mill Street property to be considered.

The voting record shows Commissioners Boos, Jaime Windon and former Commissioner Michael Gorman voted in favor of the Fremont Street location, and Commissioners Joyce Harrod and Michael Bibb voted against it.

Gorman recused himself when voting on motions advancing the Mill Street location because he was a CBMM employee, reducing the number of commissioners voting to four, resulting in a tied council and failed legislation.

Boos owned and operated St. Michaels Yacht Sales up until about two years ago, when he sold it to Curtis Stokes. After the sale, he became an employee of Curtis Stokes, doing managerial duties in its office and also working as an independent contractor selling boats.

In November 2018, Curtis Stokes entered into an agreement with the maritime museum to be employed as a listing agent for some of the boats the museum acquires through the boat donation program. Presumably, Boos would have been one of them.

After they signed with the museum, Boos became aware of a potential conflict and sent Curtis Stokes an email saying he could not accept any of those listings, Boos said, and could not be paid in any way associated with them.

A month after that email, Boos decided to seek an advisory opinion on the matter from the St. Michaels Ethics Commission.

Based on the evidence he presented for the advisory opinion, the Ethics Commission cleared him of conflict of interest because “his participation as a Town Commissioner in future interactions on behalf of the Town with CBMM related to its proposed acquisition of the Mill Street Parcel would not have a direct financial impact, as distinguished from the public generally, on him, his spouse or a dependent child or CS&A” (Curtis Stokes & Associates). Its decision was announced Jan. 17.

But the SMAC group was not satisfied with that conclusion and crafted a complaint.

On April 10, it filed a request for a new hearing with the St. Michaels Ethics Commission, this time asking the commission to address the matter as a complaint rather than an advisory opinion.

The complaint alleges Boos violated his duty as a commissioner specifically under rules of Section 22-5(D) and Section 22-5(A) of the St. Michaels Ethics Ordinance.

Section 22-5(D) states that “no town official, town inspector or town employee shall hold any outside employment relationship that would impair their partiality or independence of judgement.”

Section 22-5(A) states that “no town official, town inspector or town employee shall participate on behalf of the Town in any matter which would, to their knowledge, have a direct financial impact, as distinguished from the public generally, on them, their spouse or dependent child, or a business entity with which they are affiliated.”

The complaint alleges that Boos failed to obey those sections of the ordinance by not recusing himself from actions while his judgment was influenced by his employment with Curtis Stokes & Associates and Curtis Stokes’ relationship with the museum.

Closed meetings and trails of correspondence between the town of St. Michaels and the museum on the acquisition of the Mill Street property began as early as March 2016 with a “Letter of Intent.”

That letter of intent is non-binding, but it included an agreement that the terms of the dealings would not be disclosed to the public without the consent of both the museum and the town.

Thus began three years of behind-closed-doors real estate negotiating, up until January of this year when the public was able to piece a few details together, enough to force the two organizations to release information.

By 2017, all paper correspondence on the matter to the museum from the town that has been released to the public was signed by Boos as president of the commissioners.

On Oct. 16, 2018, according to the complaint, while the negotiations continued, CBMM President Kristen Greenaway invited Boos to a meeting to discuss “a broker-related concept” between the museum and Curtis Stokes. Boos was acting as the Delmarva regional manager for Curtis Stokes.

The following day, Oct. 17, Boos participated in deliberations at a special town meeting to discuss plans for the new town office and voted against a motion to pursue a feasibility study that could prove the Mill Street parcel a possible town office location — a vote that furthered the museum’s interest in obtaining that property for its own use, according to the complaint.

Boos did not tell anyone about his meeting the previous day as an employee of Curtis Stokes or other job-related arbitration with Greenaway, according to the complaint.

A month later, the museum announced Curtis Stokes & Associates had formed a “preferred” relationship to acquire and sell luxury boats donated to the museum.

The CBMM fiscal year ended Feb. 28, 2018, and financial statements from the museum showed $781,702 from the sale of donated boats, net of $149,173 in expenses.

The arrangement provided a financial benefit to Curtis Stokes that would include substantial local marketing, according to the complaint.

“At the very same time Commissioner Boos was voting to prevent a study of a property that the CBMM wants for its own, he was substantially increasing his employer’s profile with CBMM’s constituents. That is precisely the type of conflict that (Section) 22-5(D) of the Ethics Ordinance was designed to prevent,” the complaint alleges.

The following month, Boos sent the email to Curtis Stokes saying he could not receive payment for boat sales related to the museum.

At the Nov. 14, 2018, meeting, Boos publicly reiterated that the Fremont property still was the “voted location” when a resident asked if the Mill Street location could be considered. Boos said a motion to reconsider had failed at the previous meeting, according to the complaint.

At the Dec. 13, 2018, meeting, Boos led a discussion to change the parking requirements of the Fremont Street location so it would conform to code, according to the complaint, thereby furthering the interests of the museum.

The lot on Fremont Street technically was too small for the building under the current town zoning laws, so Boos directed Town Manager Jean Weisman to draft a text amendment to Section 340-34©(n), allowing a change to the parking requirement, resulting in less parking at the town office.

Several citizens at that meeting and Commissioner Bibb asked for a feasibility study of the much larger skateboard property instead of changing the parking rules, but that motion failed. The zoning changes for the town office on Fremont Street were passed 3-2 on Feb. 13, 2019.

The St. Michaels Action Committee LLC alleges that from the point Curtis Stokes & Associates entered the agreement with the museum on Nov. 30, 2018, “Boos had an obligation to recuse himself on any deliberations or decisions on matters in which the CBMM (or Curtis Stokes & Associates) had an interest.”

The group requested that, since it believed that Boos had violated 22-5(D) of the Ethics Ordinance, his votes regarding the town office or skateboard property on Oct. 17, Nov. 14 and Feb. 13 should be declared void and a feasibility study performed on the old skateboard park, the largest parcel owned by the town.

The St. Michaels Ethics Commission reported it met on April 25, 2019, with all three commissioners present, its attorney Andrew C. Meehan and Town Clerk Jean Weisman, who was “present at the unanimous request of the commission.”

The commission cited its earlier conclusions when it reviewed Boos’ request for an advisory opinion.

It also stated that while one of their functions is to determine if there is a reasonable basis for believing a violation has occurred, “nowhere does the Ethics Ordinance authorize the Commission to declare as void Mr. Boos’ prior votes as a town commissioner or direct that a feasibility study of 301 Mill Street be performed.”

The commission stated in the dismissal that it reviewed the Oct. 17, 2018, meeting minutes and had a “different perspective.”

It stated that the Oct. 17, 2018, meeting seemed to be a reiteration of the Aug. 8, 2018, meeting when the Fremont site had been decided and recounted that meeting.

It said at the Nov. 18, 2018, meeting there actually was no vote taken on the issue.

In regard to the meeting between Boos and Greenaway, the ethics commission determined “Mr. Boos’ ‘outside employment’ with CS&A did not impair his impartiality or independence of judgement’.”

It said the “boat brokerage arrangement between CS&A and CBMM does not render Mr. Boos a person ‘affiliated’ with CBMM.”

When the SMAC group reviewed the dismissal, it read that it complaint had been dismissed for purportedly “failure to state a claim,” according to the petition it filed at circuit court.

“The Ethics Commission said it was ruling, as a matter of law, based on the allegations in Petitioner’s (SMAC’s) complaint,” the petition read, but after careful review, SMAC came to the conclusion that the Ethics Commission relied in part on the record of Commissioner Boos’ earlier request for an advisory opinion rather than its complaint.

SMAC said the Boos’ earlier testimony had not been made available to them, and there also was the testimony given by Weisman, “who is not a member of the Ethics Commission and who, the decision says, was present when the Petitioner’s complaint was being discussed.”

SMAC called the meeting an “unreasonably abbreviated proceeding” where they were not allowed to present evidence, where the commission met to discuss the complaint in the presence of a nonmember, without notice to SMAC or an invitation for them to attend.

SMAC went on to say the commission relied on unknown evidence that was not available to it, and when it asked for copies of the outside materials or allegations the commission considered, it refused to provide them.

“We feel this is fundamentally unfair,” the statement to The Star Democrat from SMAC read. “Our petition simply asks the circuit court to send the matter back to the Ethics Commission for a full and fair hearing.”

The members of the St. Michaels Ethics Commission are Chairman Sidney Davenport-Trond, Peter Hartjens and John E. Hunnicutt.

Follow me on Twitter @chrisp_stardem. Email me at cpolk@stardem.com.

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