Yarmouth can block town and school employees from serving on its town council, according to a federal judge.

The decision will likely prevent a current councilor from seeking a second term. Meghan Casey, a teacher at Yarmouth High School, was elected in 2018. A former councilor then pushed for the rule change, and voters approved it later that year. Casey and five other residents filed a lawsuit to overturn the new charter provision in the U.S. District Court of Maine in Portland in 2019.

District Judge George Singal dismissed the complaint Thursday. He wrote that it does not prevent town employees from campaigning for a seat on the council or even holding office. But, if they win, the rule would force them to forfeit one of their roles, because they cannot hold both at the same time. The judge decided that requirement was not a violation of constitutional rights.

“In particular, given the Council’s important role in the annual budgetary process, the Court finds Defendant’s concerns over the potential for the appearance of conflict and potential negative effects in the workplace to be eminently reasonable,” Singal wrote.

The American Civil Liberties Union represented Casey and the other plaintiffs. They had argued the charter provision violated the First Amendment right of school and town employees to run for and hold public office, as well as the right of residents to vote for their preferred candidate.

“Restricting the rights of people to campaign for office and to support others for office makes our democracy less strong,” Zach Heiden, chief counsel at the ACLU of Maine, wrote in an email Friday.

Casey said Friday that she is disappointed not only for herself, but also for others who will not seek public office because of the provision. Casey said her role as a town councilor does not give her any direct control over her own salary, and she believes town and school employees can be as fair as other residents.

“There are all sorts of ways in which the people who live in a small town are impacted by the decisions of a town council,” Casey said. “If we’re going to make it so nobody who is impacted by any decisions can be on the council, we’re going to have a very limited group of people who are going to be able to serve. We need more voices, a greater diversity of voices on the council.”

The town argued the provision protects against conflicts of interest and interference with government operations or work relationships. Town Manager Nathaniel Tupper did not respond to an email about the case, but the lawyer who represented the town said the court “reached the correct result.”

“Among other things, the Charter Amendment reflected concerns about potential or perceived conflicts of interest and interference with work relationships,” attorney Dan Murphy wrote in an email. “Town employees are free to run and campaign for a seat on the Town Council while also employed by the Town, but if they win a seat on the Town Council, they must choose between their two roles.”

In 2013, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court decided a policy prohibiting two South Portland employees from running for the city council or school board violated their First Amendment rights. The charter provision in Yarmouth only refers to the town council, not the school committee.

That lawsuit was different from this one in several key ways, however. That decision came from the top state court, while the Yarmouth complaint was filed in federal court. The South Portland policy prohibited those two employees from campaigning on their own time, which the court did find unconstitutional. The Yarmouth charter does not prevent an employee from doing the same, even if it requires that person to resign to actually assume elected office. And the earlier ruling focused on two employees, while the more recent case tried to strike down the rule itself.

Both Heiden and Casey said they are still considering whether to appeal. Casey will be allowed to finish her term, which ends this year. She said she is proud of the council and all town employees for their work during the pandemic, and she described the working relationship on the council as respectful and trusting. Reflecting on her term, she said she was particularly glad she got to work on a new affordable housing committee.

Casey said she is still considering her options, but cannot afford to quit her job to serve on the council.

“That’s unfortunate, because I love both,” she said.

Randy Bates, the council chairman, said he thinks highly of Casey and hopes she will stay involved in town matters in other ways.

“There were strong opinions on both sides,” Bates said. “Now that it’s done and the decision’s been made, hopefully we can move on.”

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