making local government more ethical

A De Minimis Conflict in a De Maximis Situation

Here's an interesting conflict question. According to an article in the Tewksbury Patch this week, a special town meeting in Tewksbury, MA will soon vote on whether to go to referendum on the question of replacing the town meeting with a council. The question is whether the elected town meeting moderator, who gets a $450 stipend for his work, has a conflict that will require him not to moderate the special town meeting, because he has a financial interest in preserving the town meeting and, therefore, his stipend.

One way to approach this is to compare it to the situation where the elected board of selectmen voted to put this form of government change to the town meeting. This change would also get rid of their positions and, presumably, they also receive stipends for their work. And in any event they might very well lose their power in the town, because the five-person board will be replaced by a nine-person council. They certainly have a strong interest, whether financial or not, in preserving the status quo. In fact, this is why so few boards of selectmen are willing to change the form of government. In Connecticut, where I live, it almost never happens (and here the first selectman is the chief executive officer, and often is paid a substantial sum of money). If this is acceptable, then it should be acceptable for the moderator to run the town meeting.

Another way to approach this conflict situation is to consider whether the benefit to the moderator is de minimis and, therefore, deserving of a waiver. It is unlikely that Tewksbury has a formal waiver process, but as long as the waiver is considered publicly, with the opportunity for public comment, there is no reason the board of selectmen cannot determine that the benefit is de minimis and that, therefore, the moderator may run the special town meeting. In the alternative, the moderator could ask the state ethics commission for advice.

On the other hand, this is an extremely important town meeting, where there should be no question whether it will be impartially moderated. The public should not have a concern about the conflict. Even if there is a waiver or ethics advice that allows the moderator to run the meeting, it should be fully and clearly explained to the public why the moderator was allowed to participate with his conflict.

If there is public concern, it should be acknowledged that it is not that difficult to find a qualified individual to moderate a town meeting. If there is any controversy, this might be the best decision, despite the rational arguments for letting the moderator participate.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics