GORHAM — Narraganset Elementary School ed tech Janet Kuech, elected last week to the Town Council, was denied the position Tuesday night after councilors voted to disqualify her because she is employed by the town.

Following a lengthy executive session with its lawyer, the Town Council in a special meeting voted 4-3 to deny seating Kuech. Councilors Jim Hager, Paul Smith, Virginia Wilder Cross and Ron Shepard voted for the denial.

Kuech

The denial was based on an interpretation of the Town Charter, which states that town councilors “shall hold no office of emolument or profit under the Town Charter of Ordinances.” The charter does not define office.

“It’s extremely disappointing, but I’m not surprised,” Kuech said after the vote.

“We’re going to have to file a lawsuit,” said Kuech’s attorney, Jonathan Goodman of the Troubh Heisler law firm in Portland, who attended the meeting. “It’s a First Amendment issue.”

Before the vote, Kuech spoke briefly to the council. She said she feels qualified to serve while keeping her job.

Councilor Suzanne Phillips said deciding whether to seat Kuech is a “tough issue.”

Shepard brought up the issue of Kuech voting on a school budget. He said he didn’t understand how she could vote on it without it being a conflict of interest.

The town is grappling with overcrowding in schools and Cross cited costs with rebuilding them.

“I feel we’re opening ourselves up to (in the future having) six of seven on the council working for the School Department,” she said.

Hager, a former School Committee member and chairman, also cited the ongoing, major issues facing schools.

“I’m worried about the balance of power shifting,” he said.

Kuech’s lawyer was allowed to address the council before the vote.

“I’m a little troubled by what I’ve heard,” Goodman said. “You can’t preclude her from sitting on the council.”

Phillips, who was elected Town Council chairwoman later Tuesday, said Wednesday she was “surprised by the decision.”

She said the council will wait to see whether a lawsuit is filed before taking any action for an election to fill the vacancy. The next scheduled town election is in March.

Goodman said he expects to file a lawsuit “very quickly,” most likely in U.S. District Court.

Kuech said a lawsuit would include a request for an injunction to allow her to be seated.

Phillips said the Town Council could decide to send a charter amendment to voters to clarify or define the charter’s language about qualifications of councilors.

In August, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a group of Yarmouth residents over a new charter provision that blocks town and school employees from serving on the Town Council. The ACLU said the rule violates those employees’ First Amendment rights to run for and hold office, and violates the town residents’ right to vote for their preferred candidate. That lawsuit is pending.

Kuech received 847 votes in last week’s election, defeating incumbent Paul Smith and two other challengers. Ben Hartwell and Hager, incumbents, were re-elected.

During the Town Council’s regular meeting that followed the special session, Kuech sat in the audience while Hartwell and Hager were sworn in.

Gorham Town Clerk Laurie Nordfors administers the oath of office Tuesday to re-elected Councilors Jim Hager, left, and Ben Hartwell.


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