Bennington Select Board reviews conflict of interest policy


BENNINGTON — The Bennington Select Board is reviewing their conflict of interest policy, after complaints that board members did not recuse themselves when directing funds to organizations of which they were a part.

"We've had a lot of comments over time about those of us who are associated with groups that are trying to be civic decision makers or civil leaders," said board member Donald Campbell, who gave the Better Bennington Corporation as an example, "and the people in those groups might not have a financial stake, they may not get any financial benefit for it, but nevertheless, they might be a director of those groups. I feel like that's really where we've had that friction."

The current conflict of interest policy was adopted by the select board in 1993. "It is not nearly as comprehensive as the policy model the League of Cities and Towns outlined for us," said Town Manager Stu Hurd, who presented a policy draft to the board for their consideration that better mirrors those recommendations.

In that draft, a conflict of interest is defined as, "1. A direct or indirect personal or financial interest of a public officer, his or her spouse, household member, child, stepchild, parent, grandparent, grandchild, sibling, aunt or uncle, brother- or sister-in-law, business associate, employer, or employee in the outcome of a cause, proceeding, application, or any other matter pending before the officer or before the public body in which he or she holds office or is employed. 2. A situation where a public officer has publicly displayed a prejudgement of the merits of a particular quasi-judicial proceeding. This shall not apply to a member's particular political views or general opinion on a given issue. 3. A situation where a public officer has not disclosed ex parte communications with a party in a quasi-judicial hearing. A conflict of interest does not arise in the case of votes or decisions on matters in which the public official has a personal or financial interest in the outcome, such as in the establishment of a tax rate, that is no greater than that of other persons generally affected by the decision."

The policy draft states that a board member must disclose any real or perceived conflicts of interest prior to taking any official action in which they believe they could have a conflict of interest. Another public officer may then request that they recuse themselves from the discussion. The penalties for failing to do so include admonishment and, with a majority vote of the select board, resignation.

Board member Jeannie Jenkins is the president of the BBC board. Board member Michael Keane also sits on the organization's board of directors and his wife, Edie Sawitsky, is a past president of the board.

Board chairman Tom Jacobs suggested language that could address Campbell's concerns. "If you are a sitting member on the board of directors of an organization, which seeks public funds from our organization, you shall recuse yourself," he said, "Not a member, not an ex-officio appointee, but a director. Because there is potential favoritism, direction of business, those types of things, and it just takes away that element of suspicion and doubt." "I don't think it needs to be a straightjacket," said Campbell, "but I think it could be something that would help us, and help the community understand. I think it might reduce some of the chafing that happens around some of these questions."

Jacobs said that the policy would be on the agenda for the board's next meeting, and invited board members to bring suggestions for specific wording to that meeting.

— Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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