MVC and conflict of interest

MVC and conflict of interest

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Agencies such as the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), the Island’s powerful regional land use regulatory agency, sometimes impose limits or guidelines on staff members concerning their public comments or active public participation in support of or opposition to projects their agencies may be asked to review.

MVC staff plays an important role in shaping the commission’s decisions. The staff gathers information and prepares analysis that commissioners use to make decisions or impose conditions on a project.

The passionate opposition of Paul Foley, MVC development of regional impact (DRI) manager, to a proposed public fishing pier prompted David Nash, a member of the MV Surfcasters Association and leader of the pier effort, to express concern over Mr. Foley’s activities to Mark London, MVC executive director.

In an email to Mr. London dated August 9, following a visit to the proposed site on August 4 with a group that included Mr. Foley, then introducing himself as the MVC coordinator for the project, other MVC staff, one commission member, and a representative from the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (OEAA), Mr. Nash wrote, “People involved in this project are very concerned that Paul Foley is acting as the representative of the commission. His conduct at last week’s meeting with the state’s OEEA rep made it quite apparent that he is far too personally involved and perhaps not capable of objectively representing this application before the MVC commissioners and certainly not in a closed session before the LUPC [land use planning committee]. His lack of objectivity at last week’s meeting resulted in an MVC position that the project should be rejected as proposed. In the interest of avoiding future problems, Paul should recuse himself from further involvement as an MVC employee.”

In a telephone conversation this week, The Times asked Mr. London to comment, in the context of his responsibilities as the staff DRI analyst, on Mr. Foley’s active and public opposition.

“He’s not in a legal conflict of interest situation, but even then I believe he has a right to testify,” Mr. London said. “A conflict of interest would be considered to be a financial interest. But even then, my understanding is that he’s allowed to recuse himself and testify as a citizen.”

Asked about policies governing MVC staff, Mr. London said he had not read through the MVC staff policies in a few years and was unsure whether any of them specifically address the issue of such conflict or apparent conflict.

Yesterday, in answer to questions from a Times writer, Mr. London furnished a copy of the commission’s conflict of interest policy. In his note transmitting the information, Mr. London, concentrating on the portion of the policy that has to do with financial conflict, wrote that he did not “believe that Paul has any ‘personal financial stake'” in the pier matter.

Another part of the policy has to do with participation in local government affairs. That section provides, as follows, “Employees of the MVC are encouraged to participate in local government matters and participate on boards/commissions within the community in which they reside provided there is no conflict of interest with their MVC job responsibility and no impact on the discharge of their regular duties as an MVC employee.”

Asked if Mr. Nash’s email prompted Mr. Foley’s removal as the project’s DRI coordinator, Mr. London said, “There had been several concerns raised that may have come from the letter, or the letter may have been sent to other people who raised them. We just thought it would be better to have someone who is not as involved in any way.” Mr. Foley rents living quarters in the area near the proposed pier.

In his testimony at last Thursday’s public hearing, Mr. Foley questioned the accuracy of topography and elevation information from studies similar to ones he would rely on as a DRI analyst to make staff reports.

“We’re treating it [Mr. Foley’s presentation] like any other comment we get from a citizen,” Mr. London said. “People can raise any concerns or questions that they want. If he’s raised a question about some factual information, we will do our best to clarify that factual information.”

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Mr. Foley said his decision to strongly advocate his position on the pier to the MVC was not an easy one. “Obviously they [his supervisors at the MVC and the commissioners] would prefer I hadn’t said anything, and they took me off the case, but I felt that all the facts weren’t being put out,” he said.