Conflict of interest

The approaches are staggeringly different.

In Chilmark, where a controversy over a structure to provide access to the Squibnocket Farms subdivision has raged for several years, Doug Liman has done research and filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission. Mr. Liman alleges that selectman Bill Rossi, who is a real estate broker, has a conflict of interest because of his association with Tom Wallace, who is owner of Wallace and Co., and one of four directors of the Squibnocket Associates Limited Partnership, a corporation that owns $3.6 million worth of real estate that stands to benefit from improved access.

Mr. Liman filed his complaint, provided details of why he believes there is a conflict, and is waiting to hear from the state agency. Mr. Rossi denies there is any conflict, but on the advice of a town attorney and an attorney at the commission since the complaint was made, he has filed a disclosure with the town clerk’s office.

Ultimately, that may be the cure.

We’ve heard from more than one person in Chilmark since that story was published that such disclosures are unnecessary because Chilmark is a small town where everyone knows everyone else and what they do. That’s quaint and all, but there’s a state ethics law for those who hold public office, and it needs to be followed by everyone, from those who serve in the smallest towns to those who hold office in the biggest cities. It protects the individual and it provides potentially useful information for voters.

That’s not to say people always check before they speak.

By contrast, another selectman also had his ethics questioned recently. Edgartown selectman Michael Donaroma was fodder for a forum on the Islanders Talk Facebook page.

The allegation was that a town contract for a $500,000 sidewalk project was awarded to a Falmouth contractor and then subcontracted to Mr. Donaroma’s nursery and landscape company. The inference was that Mr. Donaroma, in his official capacity, was manipulating the system and, in the process, was pocketing a half-million dollars from the town while holding public office.

It would be a juicy story, if it were true.

Well, there was a modicum of truth to the post. There was a contract awarded to a Falmouth company for that amount. Mr. Donaroma did not vote on the contract, according to minutes from the Feb. 27 meeting. And his company’s involvement came weeks into the project, as the contractor felt the heat of a May 15 deadline, the town’s bylaw-imposed deadline for street and sidewalk projects. The contractor, facing that deadline and some rough spring weather, looked for masons on the Island who could help speed up the sidewalk project.

Mr. Donaroma had the laborers necessary, and they were hired as subcontractors. His company was paid $36,000 for the work, or about 7 percent of the entire project. He says his company was paid less than what it would have been paid on private projects, of which there is no shortage on the Island this time of year.

Anyone who bothered to check could have gotten these facts rather easily. Mr. Donaroma didn’t evade the questions, and as a precaution for such issues, has a disclosure on file with the Edgartown town clerk about his ownership stake in the nursery and landscape business.

Being an elected town official is often a tough and thankless job. Those who do it are doing the jobs that hundreds of us are unwilling to do because they are time-consuming. They open themselves to public scrutiny and, in these days of social media, they do it in a world where sometimes facts don’t get in the way of a pithy comment in a thread of half-truths, innuendo, and sarcasm.

In one of the posts about Mr. Donaroma, a writer even took a shot at the local Island press, wondering aloud and doubting whether reporters would take notice and follow up on the post.

We did, and it was worth checking, even if there was no actual wrongdoing

These are two disparate approaches to questions about a public official’s ethics. In one case we have Mr. Donaroma, who sought to avoid the appearance of conflict by following the law and filing a disclosure before questions were raised. Mr. Rossi never did until he was pushed by Mr. Liman.

Both are probably fine, upstanding selectmen who work hard for their towns. The lesson is simple. If you’re a public official, there’s no such thing as disclosing too much to avoid the appearance you’re hiding something.