Chilmark selectmen sponsor conflict of interest seminar
In a small community like this, town employees, officials and board members often face questions relating to conflict of interest between their private interests and their public positions, or between two or more public positions they may hold.
Next week they will have an opportunity to learn about the state's conflict of interest law at a seminar sponsored by the Chilmark selectmen. The seminar will begin at 3:30 pm, Thursday, Oct. 12, in Chilmark Town Hall. The selectmen have invited all Chilmark elected and appointed officials, town employees, volunteer board, committee and commission members, as well as officials from other Vineyard towns to the session. It also is open to the public.
Carol Carson, chief of the Communications and Public Education Division of the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission, will conduct the one-and-a-half to two-hour session. She has been with the ethics commission since 1992 and recently completed a term as president of the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws.
Ms. Carson said in a phone interview that the commission encourages the public as well as neighboring community officials to attend the seminars along with the sponsoring town officials. "It is helpful if everyone understands the law and the ethics commission," she said.
During the seminar, Ms. Carson will cover topics such as restrictions on receiving gifts, outside employment, contracting with the town, acting on matters in which family members and business associates have a financial interest and leaving municipal government to work for companies that have business with the same town. "I try to make it interesting and informative," she said.
Ms. Carson will discuss specific cases involving enforcement matters that the ethics commission has handled in the past and also present hypothetical situations. She said the sessions are very interactive, since she encourages questions throughout.
Ms. Carson conducts the free educational seminars for communities throughout Massachusetts. The commission did 110 such sessions last year, she said.
Ronald Rappaport, town counsel for five Vineyard towns, including Chilmark, said he speaks to attorneys at the state ethics commission four or five times a week with conflict of interest questions. The issues have recurring themes, usually having to do with friendships, family or people's employment relations, he said. "It's hard enough to get people to serve on town boards," he said, but conflicts arise. "People have to be very cautious when they agree to serve on boards and commissions."
Mr. Rappaport said it is important that people consult with the ethics commission if there is any question about a conflict before it arises. He said the commission's attorney is very helpful.
Tim Carroll, Chilmark executive secretary, said the selectmen decided to host the seminar when they received an offer from the ethics commission, because the town had not held such a program in several years.
The Chilmark selectmen had a conflict of interest situation during the last two years that brought a ruling from the state ethics commission. The issue revolved around John Abrams's efforts to be the developer of the town's Middle Line affordable housing project. He is president and CEO of South Mountain Company, a design/build enterprise based in West Tisbury.
The ethics question stemmed from a $24,000 consultancy contract in November 2004 that the town signed with the South Mountain Company and Keen Development Corp. of Cambridge for planning and consulting services for the project. Because the town had hired Mr. Abrams to do the consulting job, the question arose as to whether he was a municipal employee and thus might be seen to have been bidding on a project that he helped to create.
The Island Housing Trust, which was the only bidder to build the housing, planned to employ Mr. Abrams and his South Mountain Company. Mr. Abrams sought the ruling from the ethics commission.
The commission concluded that Mr. Abrams was a municipal employee and in that capacity was subject to certain restrictions of the conflict of interest law. Mr. Rappaport interpreted the ruling for selectmen at the time, saying that if they designated Mr. Abrams a "special municipal employee" he would be in compliance with the state ethics act.
If he had been selected as the builder for the project, Mr. Abrams would have been unable to appear before any Chilmark town boards on behalf of private clients without the special designation, Mr. Rappaport said.
The selectmen have been unwilling to designate special employees. They also rejected that Middle Line housing proposal.
Last week Chilmark voters in a special town meeting approved a new proposal that is intended to avoid the conflict issues raised in connection with the earlier plan.
Anyone who wishes to attend the seminar should call Annette Anthony, Mr. Carroll's assistant, at 508-645-2100. If the expected attendance gets too large for the town hall, the meeting may be moved to larger quarters. The decision will be made on Tuesday, Mr. Carroll said.