Municipal Ethics - Feb 29, 2024

The House Government Operations Committee returned to Draft 4.3 of their municipal ethics bill on Thursday, which would create a uniform statewide code of ethics.

The most recent changes clarify that a municipal officer may still take action on the matter following recusal if they only in their capacity as a member of the public. However, an officer whose official duties include execution of contracts shall recuse themselves from any decision-making process involved in the awarding of a contract that would benefit them.

Additionally, the language prohibiting contracts for public officials was updated to include the following:

  • Allows participation in a contract as long as the benefit is not greater than that of other individuals generally affected by the contract.
  • Prohibits participation if the contract is for employment with the municipality.
  • Allows participation if the contract was awarded through an open and public process of competitive bidding.

 

First to testify were municipal officials from Colchester, including Pam Loranger (Selectboard Chair, Colchester), Aaron Frank (Town Manager, Colchester), and Inge Schaefer (Acting Chair, Colchester Board of Ethics). Their testimony centered around the exhaustive work Colchester has done around creating a framework of ethics. They believed that the work the Committee was doing relative to municipal ethics was both unwarranted and unnecessary. In Colchester, their work on ethics started with their charter, which they referred to as their ‘mini-constitution’.  Compliance is required and every employee/elected official must sign the ethics policy. Thirteen out of twenty-six of Colchester’s policies have an ethics component. They have their own Ethics Board with its members being appointed by the selectboard.

A member of the Committee asked if this bill passes if it would impact Colchester’s system. The group said that there would be redundancy, the local and the State Ethics Commission would be doing “something different” and there would be “two sets of everything.” They stressed that local differences need to be recognized and addressed. The member noted that the general purpose of the ethics code was to build a ‘common’ floor which can be supplemented by a town/cities own codes of ethics (where they exist). However, if there is a ‘conflict’ then the State’s policy would override.

NOTE: The bill only creates a statewide baseline. Complaints are still resolved by municipalities under this proposal (not ideal) but the State Ethics Commission could still provide advisory opinions.

Representative Higley asked who would determine something is or is not a conflict. Chairman McCarthy noted that that the Town could make the initial judgement and added that there is no state mechanism outside of the courts. He also said that the State Ethics Commission could also weigh in to make a determination on individual cases.

Maureen Dakin spoke next.  She is a former legislator and a current selectboard member. She stressed that one size does not fit all. She asked if the bill would allow for other providers (presumably not the Ethics Commission?) to do the training and noted that it is hard for smaller towns to find citizens willing to serve. She pointed to the requirement for each town to have an ethics liaison as problematic in this regard. She noted that she voted on an ethics bill when she was in the legislature and said that bill was a compromise bill.

Dakin said that ethics are based on reasonableness and are hard to find in the Legislature. She read that there are seven recognized elements to ethics:  integrity, responsibility, fairness, compassion, courage, wisdom and reasonableness.

Gary Briggs testified next; his testimony was less than supportive. He expressed his frustration and said he “felt weird” arguing against something that is an attempt to make elected officials ethical. What the Committee was doing he called an “insult to rural communities.” He believes there is an assumption that “rural people are not capable of making decisions ethically.” He argued that Lunenberg relies on its voters, “they are our ethics commission,” he stated. “We don’t need a bill that legislates ethics,” he claimed.

He went on to complain that elected officials “get no money,” are under a “vast amount of scrutiny,” and are “constantly barraged.” He called the bill “just a massive waste of time.” He was confrontational about not having more time with the Committee and other bills they are considering that would, in his opinion, impact small towns.


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