The Annapolis City Council may have voted 8-1 to deputize Mayor Gavin Buckley’s boat in June, but the mayor was wrong to preside over those deliberations, the city’s Ethics Commission has found.
The commission issued a formal reprimand against Buckley on Monday, ruling that the Democrat should have recused himself from deliberations. According to the commission’s letter, “the mayor presided over the City Council proceedings without mentioning a possible conflict of interest which were [sic], in the opinion of the Commission, obvious to the meeting participants.” The reprimand is the “least onerous sanction” available to the commission and has no effect other than to serve as “a reminder to City officials of the importance of conflict of interest considerations and the availability of recusals,” the commission wrote.
Ethics Commission Chairman Jim Dolezal, said the reprimand is the first issued by the commission against a sitting mayor during his more than 15 years of service.
Buckley waived his right to a hearing before the commission and instead submitted a written response. The mayor told the commission that he, “had intended to recuse himself from proceedings” when the issue came up for a final vote on June 27, but he reconsidered in the moment due to “the intense and contentious public debate.”
The complaint against Buckley was filed on June 28. In his letter to the commission, Annapolis resident Scott Gibson posited that the bill to deputize the boat, “granted the Mayor a privilege or perk not enjoyed by others and saving the Mayor an expense that would otherwise be borne by him.”
The Ethics Commission agreed, noting that the because the mayor’s 17-foot, inflatable BRIG motorboat has been deputized, he can avoid “dockage fees of over $1,000 per year.”
“The Resolution clearly provided personal benefit,” the Ethics Commission found.
Gibson’s complaint was limited to the question of whether the mayor should have recused himself from the deliberations. The commission took no position on the resolution’s merit and its reprimand does not change the result of the council’s action. At council meetings and in interviews, Buckley argued that the boat should be deputized as a city vessel because he frequently used it to conduct city business, including taking out National Park Service leaders and other government officials on tours.
The boat became a local political lightning rod in May after Harbormaster Beth Bellis ticketed the mayor for illegally parking the boat at a dock limited to 12-foot vessels. Neighbors protested that the mayor’s bid to deputize the BRIG was an attempt to circumvent that length restriction and continue docking the boat near his home, rather than mooring the vessel in Spa Creek, or renting a cleat elsewhere.
The issue came before the council twice. On June 10, the council adopted the legislation, which was sponsored by Ward 1 Alderwoman Elly Tierney, on first reader. At that meeting, “The Commission believes the Mayor should have recused himself from presiding over the proceedings and appointed a City Council member to preside,” the commissioners wrote.
“That Alderperson could have acknowledged the apparent conflict of interest and called upon the Mayor” to “respond to questions,” the findings of fact letter continued.
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Speaking by phone Wednesday, Buckley explained that the June 27 meeting was unlike any in recent memory in Annapolis. City Hall was packed with dozens of residents interested in the boat resolution, referred to by some as “DinghyGate.” But that wasn’t the only reason the meeting grew heated, Buckley pointed out.
The meeting ran for three hours, and also attracted impassioned residents protesting medical cannabis dispensaries. In addition, Terry Tracy, a resident who maintains the Annapolis Audit YouTube channel and is facing misconduct charges in both the city and Anne Arundel County, complained to the council about various issues, refused to leave the speaker’s dais when asked and had to be escorted out of council chambers by a police officer.
“We have not had a meeting like that ever before,” Buckley said.
In retrospect, however, the mayor said he agreed with the commission’s findings.
“I made a mistake, I should have recused myself,” Buckley said. “We all make mistakes.”