Fairfield Historic Commission votes get tricky when schools are involved
FAIRFIELD — To recuse or not recuse, that was the question before the Ethics Commission Monday night.
The chairman of the Historic District Commission asked the ethics panel for an advisory opinion as to whether a member of his board should recuse themselves when voting on an application from a school their child attends.
Chairman Chris Shea said that happened twice recently, noting that two private schools — Eagle Hill and Fairfield Country Day — are both in historic districts. Three members of the HDC had a child at one of the schools. One member recused himself initially; two others felt it was not necessary.
Commission members with potential conflicts were not identified as the Shea was just seeking an advisory opinion.
The applications included removable signs and a mailbox at Fairfield Country Day, and a bluestone sidewalk, new wood windows, a revised side entrance, and removal of a portion of iron fencing in front of the former People’s Bank building purchased by Eagle Hill.
“Not knowing what the right call would be, I’m seeking guidance,” Shea said. “I don’t think it’s an instance of any commissioner acting inappropriately.”
Shea was concerned, however, with the public’s perception.
Ethics Commission member Loretta Jay agreed. “I think the problem is not just if they may or may not make a sound decision,” Jay said, “but the perception. That’s the key word.”
David Bothwell, vice chairman of the Ethics Commission, said that if someone were to complain, or file an appeal because of someone’s vote, it would be up to that individual commission member to defend their decision to vote.
Ethics Chairman Chris Brogan said if they were to issue an opinion that an HDC member would have to recuse themselves, “We’re saying this violates the code of standards,” and it would apply to all boards.
“On the surface, I don’t think I can make a blanket rule,” Brogan said. He said it might be preferable that someone in that situation recuse themselves so as to do away with any possible perception of conflict.
Ethics Commission member Marguerite Toth noted that the public interest is supposed to be the primary consideration of all town board members, and having a child at the school could make a board member’s consideration personal.
“Most of us don’t bring personal agendas into these commissions,” Bothwell said.
The commission agreed that the fact that certain HDC members did not recuse themselves was not a per set violation, based on the limited information they had. But, they said, individual members should review the standards of conduct and use that to guide them in their individual decisions, and also consider the perception of the public.