There was a moment during last Tuesday's City Council meeting when longtime Councilmember Tim Mains' face said it all. It happened shortly before Council passed legislation that bars Mains --- and anyone else employed by the Rochester City School District --- from serving on Council.
As two councilmembers abstained from voting on another piece of legislation, Mains, a new Rochester school-district principal, just sat there shaking his head. "It was like, 'Haven't I been trying to say all along that I could do what you guys are doing?'" he said a few days later.
And this gets to the core of what has become the Great Tim Mains Debate. What makes someone who works for the school district so different from someone whose livelihood might be impacted by City Council legislation? Why should the roughly 6,600 people employed by the district --- as teachers, custodians, or principals --- be excluded from holding a seat on City Council?
For Councilmember Brian Curran, the answer comes down to "a structural relationship between the City School District and the City Government that's embedded in the law." (Curran and Councilmember Nancy Griswold co-sponsored the conflict-of-interest amendment to the city charter. It passed by a 6-3 vote.)
The relationship Council has with the district is so unique, Curran says, "I am still flabbergasted that anyone with a straight face would claim this is not a conflict of interest."
Even though City Council has approval power only over the bottom line of the district's budget, those bottom-line decisions, Curran says, impact every district employee.
During the 2002 fiscal year, City Council voted on legislation affecting the school district in nine of its 12 regularly scheduled meetings. "Included in that was a request for a loan of about $53 million to allow the school district meet its current expenses," Curran says. "The decision to make that loan was crucial to the school district avoiding crisis budget cuts in the middle of the year. If we had decided not to do it, it would have affected the employees of the school district --- potentially all the employees --- not just the managers."
People focusing on the inability of rank-and-file district employees to affect district policy "have completely misunderstood the conflict-of-interest issue," Curran says.
"The point is not the authority of the school district employee. The point is the authority of the City Council over the school district," Curran says. "The decisions you make as a councilmember can affect the school district and the employees of the school district. It doesn't matter whether that employee is the superintendent or a clerk."
Twelve days after Curran and Griswold filed their legislation, Mains filed two proposed amendments geared to show 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.
Mains' proposals were never seconded, and thus never discussed, during a meeting of the Council's committee of the whole. But Curran draws a distinction between district employees and everyone else.
"The contacts we have with other organizations, like non-profit groups or contractors, are one-time contractual relationships," Curran says. "They may continue over years, but they are one issue that someone can abstain on and resolve the conflict that way."
Tim Mains was chairing Council's finance committee when he first started shopping around for a district position last April. This fact has become a source of consternation for his Council colleagues, many of whom say they had no idea of Mains' plans.
In June, when Mains was an applicant for the principal position he now holds at School 50, he actively participated in negotiating the details of that year's city budget, including amendments to the Mayor's proposed budget that had an impact on school funding.
This is a fact Mains readily admits. But he adds that he notified Council President Lois Giess and Mayor Bill Johnson that he was an applicant for the position as soon as he filed his resume.
"I was not anxious to broadcast that I was looking for work," Mains says when explaining why he didn't notify the entire Council. "Some people were personally offended that I didn't tell them. In the best of all possible worlds, my intention was to let my colleagues know."
Mains did make a point of seeking the legal opinion of the city's corporation counsel, Linda Kingsley, last April on any conflict-of-interest potential.
In an inter-departmental memo sent to Mains on April 15, Kingsley wrote: "We see no legal prohibition to a member of City Council also holding a position of employment within the Rochester City School District." Kingsley's opinion was based on the fact that City Council has no line-item power when approving the district's budget.
Mains' supporters have raised the fact that Canandaigua Mayor Ellen Polimeni is principal of the middle school in the Canandaigua City School District. But, according to Canandaigua City Manager Stephen Cole, there's simply no comparison. "There is no formal relationship between our city government and the school district," Cole says. "We do not approve the district's budget. We have no formal authority over what they do and don't do."
As far as Rochester City Council is concerned, Curran downplays the broad impact of the conflict-of-interest legislation. He interprets the city's ethics law as already prohibiting district employees from serving on City Council.
According to the city charter, "No city officer or employee shall have any employment... as a result of which, directly or indirectly, he would have an interest that would impair his independence of judgment or action in the performance of his official duties..."
Asked if he feels the conflict-of-interest legislation has become a personal issue between himself and Council, Mains says: "I will confess that it repeatedly feels personal. I don't want to believe that it is. Still, I can't help but take it personally."
But he thinks the issue speaks to general problems in the relationship between City Hall and the school district.
"Endemic at City Hall is a strong desire to have greater control over the school district than exists," he says. "Some elements within City Hall are actually hostile to the school district. They view the school district as though it is some sort of sick or perverted organization. And so all of a sudden it's like, 'Oh my God, I've become the enemy among them.'"