Facebook budget talk sparks recusal request

Should board members be discussing issues around town before voting on them at board meetings? Are written exchanges on social media any different from conversations at the supermarket?

Finance board member Jessica Mancini was asked — and declined — to recuse herself from discussions and voting on the school budget, on the grounds school issues had been part of social media exchanges she’d participated in.

“I am able to say whatever I want, as a parent,” Mancini said Thursday, March 29, after school board Vice Chairman Doug Silver had asked that she abstain from participation in the finance board’s school budget deliberations.

Silver argued that Mancini’s participation in school budget matters was tainted because she had previously been discussing pertinent issues with people through social media.

“Our attorneys advised us we cannot comment on meetings ahead of time,” he said.

“You have legal advice specific to your board. You don’t know if it’s specific to ours,” replied Finance Board Chairman Dave Ulmer.

Mancini said she had made it clear in her social media exchanges that she was not speaking for the finance board, or as a board member, but as a parent.

Silver said the school board’s understanding based on attorneys’ advice is that members should refrain from discussing official school matters outside of meetings. This is “the ethical and legal bar we as a Board of Education must meet” — and it’s the board’s practice, he said.

“We’ve had board members recuse themselves. We’ve had board member resign,” Silver said. “That’s the bar we’ve been held to. That’s why this is being raised.”

Mancini didn’t see a need to abstain from the discussions.

“If you have an issue, we have a process and you can file a complaint with the ethics board,” Mancini told Silver.

Silver later said in an email responding to questions from The Press that he would likely file an ethics complaint, but as an individual, not a board member.

“My complaint is that Jessica Mancini is abusing her role as a BOF member to influence and undermine the role of the BOE through unofficial channels and outside of the fully public eye,” Silver wrote. “At the very least I am concerned that there is a conflict of interest between her publicly stated private interests in certain programs and personnel structures and the improper influence these views have in the performance of her duties as a BOF member responsible for reviewing and setting the BOE budget that is put before the town.”  

Silver added, “This request for recusal was not made by the BOE nor was it discussed or endorsed by the BOE.” He said he did “seek advice and support” from some individual fellow board members and informed board members in advance of his intent to raise the recusal issue “as a professional courtesy.”

Silver provided Ulmer with six pages of printouts showing Facebook exchanges Mancini had engaged in with parents over the school start time debate.

In one, she questioned the idea of voting down the budget in protest against the start times issue, but shared numerous other concerns about the school budget:

“Jessica Jane Mancini (Wearing my parent hat) I don’t like what’s happening here — this budget has enough issues and needs to be looked at as a whole. Does this budget and how the monies are allocated address our community values? Are the monies projected to be spent going to progress education forward, directly help our children, support all children, support the classroom and the teachers …”

Mancini had backing from her fellow finance board members.

“This is an open discussion about the Board of Education budget,” said Ulmer. “It’s important for elected members of the board — all elected members — to weigh in.”

Finance board member Dick Moccia said he often discussed town financial questions with people he ran into at Founders Hall.

“The rest of the board is fully in support of our colleague, here,” Sean Connelly said after the meeting.

“We talk to people all the time,” said Ulmer. “That’s part of our job — getting input from townspeople.”

In a statement Friday, March 30, Mancini detailed her position.

“As elected officials, we all have the responsibility to listen to the opinions of voters and to encourage them to be involved in the process of democracy. It is our job as elected officials to be open and to encourage residents to make their voices heard,” she said. “As a parent, business owner, and a lifelong resident of Ridgefield, I am free to engage with my neighbors just like any other citizen. I encourage every resident to be assured that their Board of Finance is working on their behalf every day. Every member of our Board of Finance is focused on doing their job, including me.”