Revising town ethics code? Selectmen have a plan

What kind of “personal interest” should keep an elected official out of discussions and voting on an issue? Should attorneys who work locally really be barred from serving on boards unrelated to their law practices?

After easing a revised ethics code out of the Charter Revision Commission’s proposed changes this summer with a promise to update ethics standards through changes to town ordinances, the selectmen got started by reviewed concerns that had left them reluctant to simply approve the charter commission’s work.

“We want people to be ethical, and we want ethical boards,” said Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.

At the end of a discussion at their Sept. 26 meeting, the selectmen reached a consensus to re-read the Charter Revision Commission’s draft, think about how it could be improved, and try to hash out something that could be sent to the town attorneys for shaping into legal language.

The goal is a proposed town ethics ordinance that could be put before voters at a town meeting.

A series of charter revision proposals — not including a revised ethics code — will be on the ballot put before voters in the November election.

The selectmen’s initial problems with the charter commission ethics rewrite seemed a mix of substance and form, aggravated by time — the length and complexity of the charter commission’s work, and the little time the selectmen had, back in the summer, to consider it.

Their Sept. 26 discussion included a quick review of some concerns they’d had.

“It was a challenge ... in the format we received it,” said Selectman Steve Zemo.

“It was written by the Charter Revision Commission, not the ethics [board],” he added.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi qualified Zemo’s observation, saying Board of Ethics Chairman Bart Van de Weghe had played a significant role in the rewrite.

“Bart was an active participant,” Marconi said. “He was there through all the meetings.”

The selectman had previously wondered why the charter commission had written virtually an entirely new ethics code, rather than simply giving the old one a tune-up.

But Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark recalled some strengths in the charter commission’s new code.

“It had a little more teeth. It has a little more definition,” she said.

‘Personal interest’

Selectwoman Barbara Manners wasn’t at the meeting, but Marconi recalled a concern she’d previously raised about limits on officials participating in decisions where they had a “personal interest.”

The thought was that this needed to be carefully defined. What kind of “personal interest” should keep an official from discussing something, or voting on a budget that included money for it. “She’s very involved with the Women’s Center,” Marconi said, by way of example. “I serve on the board of Founders Hall.”

Both those organizations get money in the “community grants” portion of the town budget. Does that mean the selectmen should abstain from working on the budget?

People with kids in school serve on the Board of Education and approve its budget.

Another issue that had been raised in the summer was a provision saying attorneys serving on town boards or commissions shouldn’t represent clients before town agencies.

There’d been concerns — including among charter commission members — that attorneys who worked locally would stop offering themselves for town service because it might jeopardize their ability to represent clients.

It was noted that at least one member of the Charter Revision Commission was a partner in a law firm based in town that might occasionally work for local clients that have business with the town. Would that compromise the attorney’s participation in revising the charter?

And, volunteers willing to work on town boards — or run for office — are hard to come by.

“People like having attorneys on their board,” Kozlark said, “because they bring that legal knowledge.”

Not forgotten

While reviewing concerns, the selectmen wanted to honor their commitment to improving the town’s ethics standards by means other than adopted the Charter Revision Commission rather lengthy draft. They didn’t want to forget their commitment.

But they didn’t have a sense of how to get going on the task.

“How about if we all take some time to read it?” Marconi said.

“Maybe we can come up with some layman’s language that would convey the spirit, and give it to Dave Groggins,” said Selectman Bob Hebert, referring to the town attorney.

Marconi said another lawyer in the town attorney’s law firm serves on the Board of Selectmen in nearby Connecticut town — that perspective might be helpful.

The selectmen agreed they’d do some homework, and launch an effort to come up with a proposed ethics ordinance that could be presented to voters at a town meeting.

“We will not let it sunset!” said Kozlark.