Citing the need for openness and transparency in town government, Amherst resident Ira Bryck submitted a letter on February 16 asking the Town Council to seek legal advice “to ensure that…real or perceived conflicts of interest are properly handled in a more effective, less contentious, and more transparent way” than at present. “Our Town can and should set its bar higher,” he writes, “in this age of rampant political dysfunction and cynicism,” and calls on the town council to establish “a process to proactively and effectively handle the appearance of conflict of interest problems in a civil and realistic way.”
Bryck refers to three unnamed officials whose financial or personal relationships seem to have an appearance of conflict of interest, and asks how community members can protest this type of situation. He chose not to identify the officials or provide details about the possible conflicts of interest because “I don’t want to make it personal—about three particular people—but rather point out how at a given point in time, aka now, there are at least three substantial perceived conflicts of interest.” He added that he is not saying any of the three purposely positioned themselves to have conflicts of interest or enhanced influence on issues “but they find themselves in situations where recusal or fixing a conflictual relationship is called for.”
Asked whether it would be useful for all public officials here, such as town councilors, members of committees, and Town Hall staff to examine whether they might be influenced by business or other relationships, he said yes and that a sensible and practical litmus test is needed to help them make appropriate judgment calls about how the conflict-of-interest laws pertain to them.
Short of filing a complaint with the state’s Ethics Commission, which initiates a formal investigation, there isn’t much residents can do. They can encourage or pressure an official to file a full, accurate, and relevant disclosure and provide an appropriate spoken disclosure at the outset of deliberations on relevant issues, but it remains at the discretion of the official. The spoken disclosure might or might not be accurate, and might or might not include voluntary recusal, simple abstention from voting, or a statement that their deliberations and/or votes will not be influenced by the relationship in question. In other words, the officials themselves are supposed to examine their possible conflicts of interest and their ethical responsibilities to the town and its residents.
“There must be a better way,” says Bryck. But what might that be and how can the town develop it? Bryck suggests that it could be studied by a committee that would look at best practices “and how to fill the gap between asking someone to recuse themself and filing a complaint to the state.” He also suggested a management tool called Value Stream Mapping for figuring out a process to identify and resolve ethical lapses or perceived lapses. A useful checklist or “score card” might include questions for officials’ self-evaluations such as:
* Do I have a relationship or role that makes me less than completely neutral, or appear to be?
* Will my non-recusal increase public skepticism about me and/or the governing body?
* Do I have influence in conflicting roles that confuse the decision factors for me?
* Are there core values or objectives, in one role I’m in that make it more difficult for me to be completely objective in another role?
Bryck also pointed out that a strong process would relieve residents from feeling that it is up to them to point out the potential for conflict of interest, as did resident and former select board member Gerry Weiss on January 10. The occasion was a Community Resources Committee hearing on the proposed short-term moratorium on large scale ground mounted solar installations. Weiss strongly suggested that Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) recuse herself from deliberations and voting on the proposal because of her relationship with W D Cowls owner Cinda Jones, on whose land a 45-acre solar development involving deforestation had been proposed earlier. At the meeting, Bahl-Milne went public with a 27-second disclosure after Council President Lynn Griesemer invited disclosures. Just when Griesemer was ready to move along with the agenda, Bahl-Milne said, “Yeah. I just wanted to disclose that I am friends with one of the projects that is under way in the pipeline, but I also want to disclose that this friendship is in no way impacting my decisions and so I feel comfortable participating in this discussion and being fair.”
It is interesting to note that not long after, at the February 8 Finance Committee meeting, Griesemer offered a verbal disclosure of her own that is a study in succinctness. Near the outset of a discussion about using some of the town’s Community Preservation Act funds for public pickleball courts, she said she is required to disclose that her husband was one of the signatories to support the (pickleball court) proposal and explained that she is not required to recuse herself in this particular instance. And at the Finance Committee meeting of February 15, member Bob Hegner went so far as to recuse himself from discussion and voting on using some of the CPA funds targeted for historic preservation for preservation needs at the historic Amherst Women’s Club property because his son is getting married there. In addition, several councilors, as well as members of town boards and committees, have filed disclosures with the town clerk’s office that appear to be accurate and complete, fulfilling the purpose of the state Ethics Commission in requiring full disclosure from public officials.