Ethics dilemma for board members: To recuse, or refuse, to serve?
To recuse, or refuse, to serve?
A vibrant community relies on people who care. A good working town government depends on people who want to be involved.
So we view with concern the recent recommendation by Fairfield's town attorney to a new member of the Historic District Commission and several veteran members that they resign from neighborhood organizations.
Town Attorney Richard Saxl, in an explanation via e-mail to the Fairfield Citizen, said he recommended to HDC members only that they resign from any land-use advocacy groups on which they serve. "My view is that only an official can recuse him/herself. I certainly have recommended to officials, including members of the HDC, that they adopt the same standard. I will continue to do so."
As it turns out, Saxl was asked by an "intermediary" if a new member of the HDC could just recuse himself on matters involving the Old Post Road Association, on which he serves, when it appears before the commission. "I advised the person making the inquiry that he could, but that was not the best course of action," Saxl wrote.
Not satisfied, Ellen Gould, the chairman of the HDC, took the matter to the town's Ethics Commission, which rarely meets. "I have received mixed signals regarding members' participation in local neighborhood organizations, specifically the Old Post Road Association and Sasquanaug," she wrote in her request to the commission.
Meeting last week, the ethics panel decided that the Standards of Conduct under the Town Charter, and specifically sections 11.3 and 11.4, already spell out how "elected and appointed town officers, RTM members, members of boards, commissions, authorities and committees and all employees of the town" should handle potential conflicts of interest. Additionally, the charter requires that any of these town officials who might have a conflict of interest be "disqualified from action on any matter involving the private interest."
That seems rather plain and simple.
"It's just common sense," Ethics Commission member George Lacovara, who has served in several public capacities, said at last week's meeting. "In my experience, we don't want to be the czar of who can serve."
And the last thing the town needs is a smaller pool of people from which to choose for appointments to the many municipal boards and commissions.
While we agree with the Ethics Commission's ruling, Saxl makes a good point when he notes that the HDC has no professional staff keeping tabs on members' conduct and conflicts, unlike the Town Plan and Zoning Commission or the Conservation Commission, which "have full-time staff who ask questions in advance of [a] hearing when necessary."
Professional staff or not, it is incumbent on elected and appointed town officials to police themselves and one another. They must remember they are making decisions that are for the good of the community overall, not any one special interest.
Perhaps the town attorney should advise all town officials to refresh their familiarity with provisions of the Town Charter and the Standards of Conduct. And it wouldn't hurt if the general public became a better watchdog.