A drunken-driving charge against a Gorham town councilor, the second member in less than two years to be accused operating under the influence, has other councilors talking about revisiting the rules for town officers.
Councilor Benjamin Hartwell was charged with driving drunk after crashing his car into a tree early Saturday morning, police said Tuesday.
Hartwell, 34, was driving north on Fort Hill Road in Gorham about 12:30 a.m. when he drove his four-door Saturn off the road and hit a tree, said Lt. Christopher Sanborn.
Councilor Matthew Robinson, who intends to raise the issue at an upcoming meeting, said, “I don’t think driving drunk on our streets is what people want from our elected officials.”
Another town councilor, Suzanne Phillips, was charged with drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident in May 2012. Police said she sideswiped two parked cars on School Street in Gorham.
She later pleaded guilty to drunken driving; the other charge was dropped.
The town charter requires elected officials to vacate their posts if they’re convicted of crimes of “moral turpitude,” but it doesn’t specify what those crimes are.
After repeated discussions about whether Phillips should give up her seat, the council determined, by vote, that the crime wasn’t one of moral turpitude.
Robinson, who instigated those discussions, said Tuesday that he had planned to propose a change to the council rules, so that a drunken-driving conviction would force an elected official to resign.
He never got around to it, he said, but with the latest charge, he’ll make sure he does soon.
Council Chairman Michael Phinney said a council discussion about the definition of “moral turpitude” is worth having.
“The council doesn’t condone operating under the influence,” he said.
Town Manager David Cole said the definition could be added to the council rules by a vote of the council, or added to the town charter by a vote of the residents.
Hartwell, a cattle farmer who is a former Army sergeant, was elected to his first term on the council in November.
Reached by phone Tuesday, he declined to comment on the charge and deferred to his lawyer, Paul Aranson, who didn’t return a call. Hartwell is scheduled to appear in court on May 14.
Other elected officials in Maine who made headlines in recent years for drunken-driving charges did not resign, but lost their seats in subsequent elections.
Judith Roy, a former chairwoman of the Scarborough Town Council, pleaded guilty in 2012 to operating under the influence, after her arrest in 2011. Roy, who had served since 2007 and before that in 1990s, was defeated in November 2013 in a four-way race for two seats on the council.
A Carrabassett Valley selectman, Stephen Pierce, was arrested in Portland in 2011 on a charge of operating under the influence. After more than 20 years in office, he lost an election the next spring.
Sean Flaherty, a former state representative from Scarborough, pleaded guilty to drunken-driving in October 2010, a few months after crashing his car on Interstate 295. Flaherty, a Democrat, ran for re-election the next month and was defeated by Republican Amy Volk.
Phillips’ seat on the Gorham council will be up for election in November. Hartwell’s term expires in 2016.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: