Questions Raised About Avoiding Conflict Of Interest In Amherst

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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.

“There must be a better way…to fill the gap between asking someone to recuse themself and filing a complaint to the [Ethics Commission].”

Ira Bryck

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.

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7 thoughts on “Questions Raised About Avoiding Conflict Of Interest In Amherst

  1. In the interest of full transparency and a productive discussion for us to come up with a good process, I am curious why the author has not disclosed full information that was provided to her about my case. I wrote to Kitty on Jan 14th that I had consulted with the office of Ethics Commission about my case and Ms Duca interrograted my connection with Cinda and declared that there was absolutely no conflict of interest. I shared a copy of the memo and disclosure form with Kitty. Why did the author choose to not share that as part of the news article? I’ve also shared the memo and disclosure form with Ira and others who’ve written to council about this potential conflict.

    Kitty had concerns about my disclosure and wrote back to me, “Your disclosure doesn’t seem quite complete and straightforward. Are you sure you’re really being accurate?”

    To which my reply was, “What do you feel is missing in the disclosure firm? I’ve completed it as accurately as I could but it’s possible you’re seeing something that I’m not. Happy to talk over the phone tomorrow if that’s easier. ”

    I never received an answer back what she thought was missing. I am willing to correct my actions if there was an error but there wasn’t anything pointed out other than now seeing this incomplete news piece. How do I trust Amherst Indy news when the information being provided by writers is incomplete and omission of important information is misleading. It creates more divisiveness rather than solving problems.

    On the other hand, I did have a productive conversation with another resident Rani Parker who also didn’t know that I’ve not simply signed a form and made a statement but went to the Ethics Commission. I am sharing the list of things we talked about and what we already have in place to ensure that the process is transparent:
    1. When there’s potential for conflict we get the advice of the Ethics Commission
    2. We share what we learn in a memo that’s filed with the Town Clerk with a copy to Town Council President and Town Manager
    3. It’s shared publicly before meetings (which I admit I forgot to do and apologize for not doing so)
    4. When residents write to the Town Council president, Town Manager, or the councilors we try to get back to you all as soon as we can with the information we have (which I have done with Sharon, Gerry, Kitty, Ira, and Rani)
    5. If you still don’t agree with the decision of the individual councilor, follow their process for decision making and if you still think they’re acting on their biases (we all have biases and the question is if we have a fair and transparent process for decision making that shows that even though we may have biases we’re not acting on them), don’t vote for them!

    Two things that came from my discussion with Rani is that we can make this process known on the Town Council website so everyone understands what’s in place and secondly if people don’t feel comfortable writing to the concerned councilor or council president, they can write to their district councilors who can speak with the concerned councilor. Those two ideas I will take to the Town Council.

    Again, we’re open to receiving suggestions to improve over and above the process we already have. Ira’s suggestion of Value Stream Mapping sounds fascinating and not sure how it’s applicable to discerning conflict of interest. Value Stream Mapping, if you don’t know what it is, and I didn’t so I looked it up, is a technique — developed from Lean manufacturing — that organizations use to create a visual guide of all the components necessary to deliver a product or service, with the goal of analyzing and optimizing the entire process. As for the score card, the disclosure form we fill includes similar questions as suggested by Ira.

    Here’s a copy of the memo that was sent to Kitty.
    To The Town Clerk
    Town of Amherst, MA
    1-14-21

    Dear Susan,

    As a member of the Town Council and one of its committees, the Community Resources Committee, I will be discussing and voting on a moratorium on large scale solar projects for 18 months or until a bylaw for solar is developed and passed by the Amherst Town Council.

    One of the solar projects in the pipeline, although at present the application has been withdrawn, that could be impacted by the moratorium is on the land owned by a friend who has also been my mindfulness student and sent four of her employees to my mindfulness classes in the past.

    I spoke with Miss Lauren Duca at the Ethics Commission to clarify if there was a conflict of interest. I gave her the details outlined in the form 23 (b)(3) attached to this letter and she said that there was no conflict of interest since the mindfulness classes that she and her employees attended had nothing to do with the solar project or land that might be impacted by the vote coming up. I just have to file this form with you and disclose this before the meetings.

    Please let me know if there’s any other information I can provide.

    Warmly,
    Shalini Bahl-Milne

  2. Shalini, the disclosure you filed withholds significant aspects of your long and perhaps profitable relationships with landowner Cinda Jones as a friend, sometime business partner, client, and provider of “happy client testimonials” for your website. Did you share more with the Ethics Commission? I, too, have spoken with the Ethics Commission, in my case as a journalist and member of the public, not an elected official whose votes on important issues steer the future of its residents and visitors. How would the Ethics Commission know what is missing from your versions of yourself? I did my homework.

  3. A professional code of ethics outlines a teachers’ primary responsibilities to their students and defines their role in a student’s life. According to the Professional Governmental Underwriters, Code of Ethics for Educators, July, 2020, “As an educator, teachers must treat every student with kindness and respect without showing any favoritism, prejudice or partiality.” Would this not hold true for a meditation/mindfulness teacher who describes her student as a “close personal friend” when money is exchanged for the teacher’s classes and particularly when the teacher holds a dual role (teacher and town councilor) and will vote on a town policy that will impact the student financially? It appears overly simplistic and maybe even disingenuous to say that no conflict of interest exists because the topic of the class (mindfulness) offered by a teacher to a student is not directly related to the topic of the teacher’s policy vote (solar moratorium) that will directly financially benefit the student. The impact of the close personal friendship on the vote is more to the point.

  4. Kitty, this news article doesn’t include facts that were provided to you by me in January. I emailed you my disclosure form and my conversation with the ethics commission. The article only mentions my public statement but not my disclosure form and the fact that I did consult with the ethics commission.

    Your question whether I disclosed everything is a separate issue. Let’s talk about that next. I reached out to you in good faith to share with you what I had disclosed. If you had any issues with that you could have asked me for clarifications, which I would have been and am happy to provide. My collaboration with Cinda for the mindful city project is disclosed in the disclosure form that we’re committed to building a mindful community but it doesn’t involve any financial exchange. The blog post in which I describe the project can be read here:
    https://knowyourmind.training/mindful-city-a-prototype-at-the-mill-district-north-amherst/

    This is an idea I’ve been working with other mindful leaders in the country to explore what a mindful city might look like and Cinda was willing to offer the Mill district as an example for us to brainstorm the ways a community can be more compassionate and work together. I do encourage everyone to read the blog post and share their ideas how we can learn to be more compassionate. It does overlap a little with what Maria Kopecki wrote about being kinder with each other.

    My disclosure form includes all this information and everything that is in the disclosure form is what I shared with the ethics commission office and included in the memo filed with Town Clerk. If you still think there’s anything else missing, let me know and I am happy to clarify and correct myself if I am in the wrong.

  5. Peggy, with respect to your comment, “It appears overly simplistic and maybe even disingenuous to say that no conflict of interest exists because the topic of the class (mindfulness) offered by a teacher to a student is not directly related to the topic of the teacher’s policy vote (solar moratorium) that will directly financially benefit the student. The impact of the close personal friendship on the vote is more to the point.” I want to clarify that this is the opinion and words of the ethics commission officer or whatever they’re called.

    Legally there’s no conflict of interest but as a mindfulness practitioner and teacher I live and work with a committment to promoting the wellbeing of our environment and all beings. As such even though I care for my friends, and wish them every success, I will not support any action that endangers our environment. That’s why I reached out to the Energy Transitions Institute and other folks including Todd Holland who oversaw the Hampshire college solar and Tom Davies who oversees the Amherst college solar and they all wrote to Town Council opposing the moratorium.

    But I didn’t stop there. I wanted to find out that if we don’t have a moratorium or if these properties are going to be grandfathered in, how can we ensure that we don’t face what happened in other towns. In the process I found out that section 53G of state law allows the town to hire a consultant that will be paid for by the solar company to assess the impact on the waterbodies, soil erosion, etc.

    If the independent consultant discovers that this land is not suitable for solar, the zba doens’t have to approve the project based on the consultant’s report.

    Just to be clear, the moratorium will not impact the private landowners who get preliminary subdivision plans in place but a consultant like I am suggesting under section 53G could stop a solar project from going up if it’s not in the right place.

    I have learned a lot in the process and happy to talk more if anyone wants to reach out, here’s my email – bahl-milnes@Amherstma.gov

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