Editorial / Failing to see what's in plain sight

When push came to shove, there really was only one choice for Jim Walsh.

Facing hard questions about conflict of interest between his job as a full-time lawyer and his duties as a part-time selectman, Walsh last week did what any rational person with a family and bills to pay would do. He put his livelihood ahead of political interests and resigned his seat on the Board of Selectman.

The conflict involved Walsh's representation of legal clients before town land-use boards.

It came to a head early last week when The Citizen asked Walsh a series of questions about how he could serve the best interests of the town while at the same time being paid to represent the interests of private legal clients before town boards.

In response to The Citizen's questions, Walsh abruptly announced his resignation last Thursday, saying a member of the Town Plan and Zoning Commission also had questioned him about conflict during a hearing before that panel a few days earlier.

The minority Republican on a three-member board, Walsh quickly did the right thing after reading the handwriting on the wall.

What is troubling, however, is that the handwriting spelling out potential conflict had been on the wall for a long time. It had alternately been read, misread and ignored -- but never read aloud until last week.

In current business before the TPZ, Walsh is representing the owner of a downtown building who wants to open a restaurant there and add a second floor. That case brought questions of conflict to public light, but they had been discussed privately for some time.

Under state law, Walsh as a selectman is an ex-officio member of both the Town Plan and Zoning Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals. So before those panels, the only interest Walsh could have permissibly represented was that of the town.

But Walsh had been a selectman for two years -- appointed to the board after the death of Ralph Bowley in May 2010, then elected in his own right last November. And as a partner in the Post Road law firm of Miller, Garrell & Walsh LLC, his appearances before the TPZ and ZBA on behalf of private clients have not been infrequent.

Walsh last week said he had done business with the town's land-use boards before he was a selectman and as one. He said he felt nothing had changed -- that he was treated like any other applicant.

Yet Walsh was aware there were ethical questions. In fact, he said he had asked "numerous other attorneys" in both parties to review the legality of him representing private clients in land-use cases. Based on those opinions, he said, "it was determined that my representation was permissible."

But determined by whom?

Not by former Town Attorney Robert Saxl.

Saxl said that when he was the town's chief legal officer, he had warned Walsh "on numerous occasions" that he could not represent private clients before land-use panels. He even showed Walsh published opinions on rules of professional conduct supporting that position, Saxl said.

Then there is state statute, the ultimate authority.

But if Saxl as the town's attorney was certain Walsh's work was improper, why didn't he issue a formal opinion on it? As a Democrat and loyalist of former First Selectman Ken Flatto, it would have been simple for the town's chief executive to request an opinion.

Raised along with the red flag in the Walsh case are questions about what other conflicts -- blatant or subtle -- might be quietly festering in town government or the school department.

To maintain public trust, even the appearance of conflict should be avoided. So it would serve the town well to conduct a department-by-department, board-by-board review to identify potential problems.

Fairfield has a very adequate supply of lawyers, and many are involved in town government.

It's hard to believe that for all their training in procedure and proper conduct, more than a few of them didn't see a problem.