Friday, April 5, 2002
Candidacy prompts review of ethics laws
Last week the Mosquito received an anonymous mailing consisting of a copy of a state ethics commission's "Fact Sheet" on avoiding appearances of conflicts of interest. Portions of the fact sheet were highlighted, specifically a portion of M.G.L. Chapter 268A, the Conflict of Interest Law, Section 19, which states: "The conflict lawexpressly prohibits public officials from acting on any matter that affects the financial interest of themselves, their immediate family members [including] his spouse." The mailing was addressed to "Mosquito, Carlisle, MA" with no return address or note inside.
A similar mailing was sent to the apparent target, Michael Fitzgerald, newly nominated candidate for the Carlisle School Committee whose wife Susan is a fourth-grade special education teacher at the Carlisle Public School. Interviewed last week by the Mosquito, Fitzgerald was asked about a potential conflict of interest. "My understanding is I should abstain from discussions of union contracts and salary," he explained.
A call to the state ethics commission confirmed that Fitzgerald's under-standing was correct. In a further discussion of relevant ethics issues, Carol Carsen, chief of public education for the ethics commission, repeatedly stated that violations of the ethics law involve "actions, not status." While Fitzgerald can't participate in salary discussions or negotiations with teachers, this does not mean he cannot be a member of the school committee.
Families in which several members are municipal officials or employees are not unusual in Carlisle or elsewhere, according to town administrator Madonna McKenzie. School committee member Cindy Nock said she could not recall any conflict situation for herself or her husband John, a member of the Carlisle Finance Committee. In the recent past Carlisle was served by a number of "power couples" whose positions could have provided an opportunity or appearance of a conflict of interest, for example, selectman Kate Simonds and town moderator Pete Simonds, treasurer Nancy Koerner and tax collector Bill Koerner.
Standards of Conduct
In addition to immediate family members defined as the municipal official's or employee's spouse, parents, children, brothers and sisters any personal relationships, including the employers, contractors, close friends and immediate neighbors, need to be considered when evaluating a potential conflict-of-interest situation.
Additional guidance is in Section 23 of the conflict law, Standards of Conduct, which provides, "a general code of ethics for all public employees and officials when faced with an overlap of private interests and official responsibilities... Current state law allows public officials to act on matters, even if it creates the appearance of a conflict, if they openly admit all the facts surrounding the appearance of bias prior to any official actionFor example, it may be necessary for a public official to disclose a personal relationship with someone appearing before his or her boardOnce a public disclosure has been made, the official may participate in the matter notwithstanding the 'appearance' of a conflict."
McKenzie recalls numerous instances when members of the board of selectmen have recused themselves from a discussion or vote which affects an individual or organization with which they have ties. For example, selectman Doug Stevenson, a dues-paying member of the Carlisle Historical Society, chose to abstain from any consideration of the historical society's permits for renovation of their new home. "He didn't have to do this, as he was not a member of their board," said McKenzie, " but he thought it was cleaner that way." Stevenson also juggles his obligations as a selectman and Carlisle fireman.
The key in all potential conflict situations is full disclosure of relationships prior to taking any action.
The conflict of interest law, Chapter 268A, and the campaign finance law, Chapter 55, both provide guidance and limits on political actions by public officials and employees, including teachers, firemen, support staff, and others. Of particular relevance to Carlisle at this time, the laws prohibit any action for or against candidates and ballot questions for the May 14 town election. A guidance document on "Municipal Ballot Question Committees" issued by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) state: "No public resource may be expended or utilized in order to promote or oppose the nomination or election of any candidate to publiuc office or to promote or oppose any ballot question placed before the voters. Examples of public resources include: paid staff time of public employees, office equipment, vehicles, buildings and supplies."
OCPF official Dennis Kennedy drew a fine line between political actions on ballot questions, which are prohibited, and campaigning for or against any Warrant articles for the Town Meeting, which are not covered under the law.
Political campaigning by private citizens which involves raising and spending even modest campaign funds is strictly regulated under the campaign finance law. Individuals need to be familiar with regulations on Political Action Committees (PACs) and People's Committees. Fines can be substantial.
Information and guidance
Copies of the conflict of interest Fact Sheet and other relevant literature can be found on the state's web site, www.mass.gov/ethics (click on "Educational Materials"). Information on issues related to campaign finance, including Municipal Ballot Question Committees and Political Action Committees, is provided on the web site of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, at www.state.ma.us/ocpf (click on "Guides"). In addition, any citizen seeking advice on how to avoid or handle a potential confict of interest situation is encouraged to call the state ethics commission at 1-617-723-5851 or the Office of Campaign and Political Finance at 1-617-727-8352. The key is to check before any action is taken.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito