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Playing ‘political piñata’

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City Councilman Tim Mains often jokes that he's spent the past two years serving as City Hall's resident political piñata. And it's an experience that Mains says forced a hard lesson: that "political friends," as he says, "are sometimes better defined by the adjective than by the noun."

Over the past two years, Mains, a principal at School 50, came to personify Local Law No. 4. Passed by council last year, the amendment to the city charter barred anyone employed by the Rochester City School District from serving on City Council or running for mayor. The thinking was that the structural relationship between the city and the school district runs so deeply --- with City Council responsible for approving the district's annual budget --- that the potential for conflicts of interest was too great.

But Mains appealed the ruling, and got it overturned by US District Court Judge Michael Telesca this past summer. The city has decided against further appeals. And both Mayor Bill Johnson and City Council President Lois Giess, while disagreeing with the ruling, say they'll have no further comment on the issue.

Throughout what Mains calls a "long and emotional journey," there were countless questions: Couldn't Mains just abstain from voting on school district legislation? When, exactly, did Mains notify his council colleagues that he was seeking employment in the school district? Is the city bent on asserting more control over the district? (For background, see "Happily divided," City Newspaper, March 19, 2003, www.rochester-citynews.com/gbase/Gyrosite/Content?oid=oid%3A1806)

Telesca had similar questions. And, though a frequently downright hilarious display of legalese, the District Court transcripts show how far Telesca was from agreeing with Local Law No. 4.

In one exchange between Telesca and David Rothenberg, the attorney defending City Council's ruling, Telesca hammers on what he considers Mains' reasonable ability to recuse himself from legislation involving the district. Here's an edited sample of the exchange:

Telesca: Now, what's the evil here that was being protected against?

Rothenberg: The potential evil --- nobody is accusing Mr. Mains of doing anything evil.... So there was no actual evil. The evil is the potential conflict of interest and, your Honor....

Telesca: But couldn't he just as easily take care of any potential conflict of interest by just recusing himself, A, and B, what is his impact on reviewing the budget process, which is not a line-by-line process? He is one of nine people. He has 11 percent of the vote. Why was this law required which included disenfranchising himself and anybody else in the City School District that chooses to run for office?

Rothenberg: Your Honor, those are all good questions.

Telesca: I think they're excellent questions.

Telesca went on to call Local Law No. 4 "a very individualized law to solve a problem which I think can be best handled by ethical considerations.... The people have elected [Mains] knowing full well he was a school teacher. He was a school teacher in Greece and now he is a school teacher in the RCSD, a principal of a grammar school. I just don't see it at this point. I really don't."

Mains says when he took his job with the Rochester school district, he did so feeling that he was doing something positive, furthering his commitment to his community. And the controversy caught him by surprise.

"Some of my colleagues (whom I considered to be my allies and friends) turned out to be more concerned about doing what was politically expedient for them," Mains says. "Some encouraged or even demanded that I seek an Ethics Board ruling. I thought the question was, 'When should I abstain or recuse myself?' But after I announced I would seek a ruling, some of my colleagues demanded my ouster.

"One, Lois Giess (who sits on the Ethics Board), even helped to craft the language that would declare my two positions wholly incompatible," he says.

In a joint statement released after the Telesca ruling, Johnson and Giess reiterated their opinion that "the potential exists for a conflict of interest" when a Rochester school district employee serves on City Council.

Shortly after learning about the legislation that would become Local Law No. 4, Mains filed two proposed amendments to illustrate just how far the conflict-of-interest concept can be taken. Family members of city employees, suppliers of goods or services to the city, anyone who owns more than $1 million worth of city real estate, or any registered lobbyists could all be prohibited from serving on Council due to potential conflicts, Mains reasoned. And he says the potential for conflict exists among many of his council colleagues.

"The reality is that in a citizen legislature with a number of representatives who work full-time and serve part-time in public office, you will always have the potential for conflicts," he says. "Most of the time, we see these connections as assets, not liabilities. I continue to be baffled by the notion that my connection to the school district should be seen as problematic, when nobody else's work is."

Now that the court has tossed out Local Law No. 4, Mains is free to run for reelection to City Council. There's also the possibility he'll run for mayor. It's a move he says people have been urging him to make for a while now. (He actually initiated a campaign in 1993, but decided to run for reelection to council instead.)

Mains had shied away from the idea, mainly because Wade Norwood is somebody who political observers have said for years is practically destined for the position. Mains is also passionate about his work as a public educator, and isn't keen on giving it up. But now he's reconsidering.

"The political shenanigans over the promised $20 million state spin-up for the School District have certainly raised the ante," Mains says. "Wade has said he supports David [Gantt] in his blocking of those funds.

"It is true that some folks have recently been trying to convince me that I could do more to help schools from the mayor's office than from the principal's chair," Mains says. "At this point, I have not been convinced. The race for mayor will be expensive and time consuming. It will not be for the politically faint of heart."

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