Pownal Select Board considering ethics policy

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POWNAL — The Select Board is considering an ethics policy, part of an effort to implement multiple policies on a town level.

"The impetus was, when I got hired, I was asked, actually tasked, with developing policies — personnel policy, harassment policy, sexual harassment policy," said Town Administrator Michael Walker. "All the policies for the town, from a human resources standpoint."

This involves conflict of interest and ethics, he said.

"How the townspeople want to see us act, behave, conduct our business," he said.

Walker said he put together the ethics policy based on guidance from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and other sources.

The town's conflict-of-interest policy does not really address ethics, he said.

"There wasn't really anything ethics in there," he said. "If there was, it was just a small amount."

The conflict-of-interest policy, signed in 2013 by a previous Select Board, prohibits public officers from participating in any official action if they have a conflict of interest in the matter, according to a copy of the policy. Conflict of interest is defined as a direct or indirect personal or financial interest.

Having an ethics policy makes "some kind of a statement of where we stand as a community, and what the community would expect of us from an ethical standpoint," Walker said.

Government is about more than doing things correctly, he said.

"It also means a lot to do things with integrity, with truthfulness," he said. "To me, it's defining ourselves."

The town also has clients, not customers — and that distinction is important, he said.

"When I talk of customer service, we don't have customers, we have clients, and the difference and the distinction is that the customer has a choice," he said. "We have clients. The town, the public, doesn't have any choice. We're it. So in my mind's eye, we have a higher level of commitment of duty to the public. That's why it's important to me."'

If the board approves the policy, no further action is needed before it goes into effect, Walker said. The board is free to discuss and change it.

"It's open for debate," he said. "It's open for change. It's open for other considerations."

At a board meeting last Thursday, board member Bob Jarvis said he had "a lot of comments and questions about the policy itself," and agreed to write out his thoughts and bring them to the board.

"It's highly subjective," he said of the draft policy. "It does refer to core values. Corporations have core values. I don't think municipalities do."

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"I think the core values came from our policy that [Walker] presented us," board member Marlena Pellon replied.

The draft policy includes a short section on core values, which states that the town recognizes the importance of "credibility, integrity and trustworthiness or our success as government."

"We are committed to upholding high ethical standards in all our interactions, everywhere," the core values section states. "We believe in the principles of honesty, fairness and respect for individual and community freedoms."

The policy also states that living up to the letter and spirit of this commitment is not easy, as there can be valid differences in opinion.

"When we're faced with a complicated situation, it can be difficult to decide where the ethical path lies," the policy states. "We will act in good faith based upon our values."

The policy also identifies six ethical principles: honesty, promise-keeping, fairness, respect for others, compassion and integrity. The principles set ground rules for everything employees, elected personnel and appointed personnel do, according to the policy.

At the meeting last week, Jarvis said he thought some things in the policy were "superfluous."

"To me, when I read the policy, it's very subjective," he said. He contrasted that with the town's conflict-of-interest policy, which is precise, he said.

"This policy has a lot of other things," he said. "Compassion, integrity. These are just general things that I hope we all agree with. But they're very subjective."

He added that "these are political issues."

"I wouldn't say that these are necessarily political," replied Bryan Harris, chairman of the board.

"Policy and ethics are not the same thing," Jarvis said. "And this policy says that they are."

Pellon said that the board had voted to create a code of ethical conduct, and "instead of continuously going back and forth," Jarvis submit his requirements and the board consider them. Jarvis said he would.

Walker said Monday that he believed the board would have Jarvis' feedback soon.

Pellon added that she felt every time the board makes a commitment to discuss and adopt policies, board members don't come prepared to do so.

"I would like the board to please be more prepared, so we can move forward," she said. "It impacts our community."

The board plans to meet Tuesday, Aug. 13 at 6 p.m. at the town hall for a work session on the code of ethics and website policies.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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