Official nearly resigns so girlfriend can get lease

Whidbey News-Times file photo Port of Coupeville Commissioner William Bell nearly resigned from his position Wednesday so his girlfriend could move forward with a proposal to lease space at the Greenbank Farm. Other officials raised concerns the move might be a conflict of interest.

A Port of Coupeville Commissioner nearly resigned Wednesday so his girlfriend could rent space at the Greenbank Farm.

Carolee Laduke submitted a request to lease the open space in Barn C previously leased by the Rob Schouten Gallery. Laduke is the girlfriend of Commissioner William Bell, and when issues of conflict of interest were raised, Bell indicated he would be willing to resign right then and there so she could move forward with leasing the space.

Board president John Mishasek said during the port’s regular meeting the request was reviewed by the port’s attorney Grant Weed and the port was advised that it was “a really bad idea.”

Interim Executive Director Jan Marc Jouas said he also consulted Municipal Research and Services Center, a nonprofit organization that provides legal and policy guidance.

Both Weed and the MRSC advised leasing space to Laduke would be a conflict of interest.

“I think it would make it very difficult for the commission to operate because you would have to recuse yourself from every Greenbank Farm issue,” Jouas told Bell.

“Are you saying I can’t (lease the space) because he’s my boyfriend?” Laduke asked.

“No, it’s because you co-habitate,” Jouas said. “If the board was to go through with this, it would be against the advisement of the MRSC and port attorney.”

Laduke’s proposal is to open a children’s shop called Kid Farm. It would have a “rustic farm theme” and offer toys, books and other farm-themed children’s items. The shop would also sell various types of candy, including bulk, retro and items from the 60s.

“I think it would be a good thing for the farm,” Laduke said.

Jouas said he didn’t disagree that the concept would be great for the farm.

Bell said he and Laduke have been looking for a new home, which may end up taking him out of his district and force him to resign his position anyway.

“I hate to do it, but it might be an eventuality,” he said.

Bell was ready to resign, but Jouas stopped him, saying leasing Laduke the space wasn’t a decision even close to being made that day. There were several other businesses interested in the space and Laduke still needed to submit a business plan, he said.

During the meeting, Laduke and Bell indicated that the business was a separate endeavor and Bell was not involved.

In an April 26 email obtained through a public records request, Bell emailed Jouas to inquire about the property.

“Carolee and I are interested in leasing the Schouten space immediately,” he wrote. “I cannot rent it until I am assured the public has been adequately informed regarding its availability.”

He also goes on to refer to himself as a renter and says he’s willing to personally invest in the future of the farm.

Jouas responded by suggesting he contact the port attorney to discuss conflicts of interest and applicable RCW and MRSC information.

In an April 30 email to Weed and Jouas, Bell clarifies his and Laduke’s plans, saying he will be loaning her $10,000 in initial capital but will not be employed by Kid Farm.

And in a May 1 email with the subject line “bank robbery,” Bell writes that he will no longer be loaning Laduke the funds. She will be taking out a personal loan.

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