The daughter of Lewiston City Councilor Cari Miller will no longer be able to serve on the city’s Youth Advisory Commission because of a recently discovered provision in city code, according to City Attorney Jana Gomez.
Gomez said that when 13-year-old Alexa Anderson applied for the commission last year, her examination of state public corruption laws found no prohibition for family members of city councilors to serve on advisory commissions since such positions are not compensated.
But further research related to the application of Councilor Kevin Kelly’s daughter to the same commission revealed a single line in city code prohibiting the service of spouses or household members of city councilors.
“So that was a mistake by our office,” Gomez told the council this week. “We simply missed that in the city code.”
The council had a chance to change that prohibition at Monday’s regular meeting with the first reading of an ordinance to repeal that line. And while five councilors supported an amendment to allow family members of councilors to serve only on the Youth Advisory Commission, the overall ordinance failed on a 3-3 vote, with Kelly abstaining.
Councilors Bob Blakey, Miller and Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Schroeder voted yes, while Mayor Mike Collins and councilors John Pernsteiner and John Bradbury voted no.
“I definitely feel for Councilor Miller and Councilor Kelly’s kids because my kids were in the same spot, and they didn’t enjoy it either,” Collins said of the sacrifices his family had to make to allow him to run for city council.
Bradbury was even more strident in his opposition, arguing that making an exception would send the message that people who know someone on the city council can get special treatment. But Miller reminded the council that it appointed Anderson last August with six votes, while she abstained.
“I was kind of surprised,” Miller said of Monday’s vote. “I think we should encourage all youth to be involved in local government. There wasn’t anything (prohibiting her appointment) in state law, and I don’t believe it’s a conflict of interest to have as many youth involved as possible.”
Her daughter also discovered an enthusiasm for serving in the commission that she hadn’t found in other activities, Miller said.
“It’s great to find kids that are passionate about the community and supporting local government,” she said. “I didn’t anticipate it would be an issue with the council at this point because they had voted (in August) and they were fine with it. And now, all of a sudden, they don’t think it’s OK. It felt a little personal.”
Gomez pointed out that even if there isn’t an actual conflict of interest when a councilor’s family member serves in an advisory capacity, there can be the appearance of one. And it can create the opportunity for “ex parte communications” between the councilor and commission member if they discuss pending issues outside of an official setting.
“I think there’s a tendency when you go home to talk about what’s involved and what’s going on,” Gomez said.
That would be a particular problem with a group like the city Planning and Zoning Commission, which makes quasi-judicial rulings and recommendations to the council, she said.
“It could appear as a conflict to have a decision from Planning and Zoning reviewed by a family member,” she said.
Miller said her daughter is confused by the council’s decision, but also has been understanding and mature about the situation. But Miller was disappointed, especially since her daughter got a sense of representation from the commission that kids don’t typically get because they can’t vote.
“Their input is so important because we don’t have that perspective unless we engage them,” she said.
Mills may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2266.