Hudspeth: What constitutes conflict of interest?

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Recently, there were three candidates presented for positions on our town’s Fire Commission whose candidacies were rejected on possible conflict-of-interest grounds. To some extent the passage of time has mooted the issue as to these three candidates as others have been brought forward in their place. However, the broader point is that there are numerous other town board vacancies with candidates able and willing to fill them, but a bottleneck remains on the actual appointment front.

That’s unfortunate because our town has always prided itself on both the willingness of residents to volunteer for these unpaid board positions and the quality of the applicants who present themselves for appointment. It’s a shame not to be taking advantage of their insights and perspective.

As to those Fire Commission candidates, the asserted conflicts arose from the notion as to two of the candidates that they are in the chain of command that reports to the Fire Chief in the event of emergencies on which they’re called to respond and as to the third that he was formerly employed as a firefighter and therefore might have issues as to the disciplining of firefighters even though he is no longer an employee or a member of the firefighters’ union.

There’s a double irony here in that (1) our town is always seeking to encourage residents to volunteer for these unpaid town board positions and (2) residents who actually have firsthand knowledge of the work involved in the department in question would seem to be among those best suited to serve effectively.

A third irony is present here as well in that members of numerous town boards past and present, including even selectmen, have also served on the boards of nonprofits — or have had spouses serving in positions of the nonprofit’s leadership — that are in public-private partnership with the town and hence are receiving partial town funding and other town support.

In those cases, the ethical and very simple right answer is, of course, for those town board members to recuse when issues affecting the nonprofit board on which they serve, or for which their spouses work or serve, come before their town board. Those recusal rules are well-known and well-observed, as I saw during the six years I served as chair of our town’s Council on Ethics ending a half-dozen years ago. Recusals are very appropriate as a way of handling these kinds of issues.

For the former firefighter candidate, it’s hard to imagine what the conflict of interest would be since, even if that person is a town fire department pensioner, the Fire Commission has no control over firefighters’ pension provisions or rights.

For the town CERT member candidate, it is equally hard to imagine a serious conflict of interest that is not recusable. To the extent the Fire Commission considers a budget item for CERT (and I believe it does so only very infrequently), the CERT member can, and of course should, recuse. CERT members respond to call-outs as they are able and as call-outs occur, and most do not respond to every call-out.

The CERT member could also resign from CERT for the duration of the person’s service on the Fire Commission, but that seems an extreme step to take in light of the important work that CERT does for our town in which all of its volunteers are useful and in light of the fact that town board members regularly recuse themselves, as previously mentioned, when matters come before their board that affect an entity in which they or their spouse has a leadership role or interest. If the ambulance-corps-member candidate is a volunteer, I see the situation as analogous except that the person’s service there is likely to be on a more regularly scheduled shift.

In any event, our town’s Code of Ethics contains a very useful provision for securing advisory opinions from the Council on Ethics concerning any situation affecting a town official, including town board members. The official can rely on that council opinion provided, of course, that disclosures as to the matter on which the advisory opinion is sought are accurate and complete.

I hate to see our town miss out on opportunities for getting knowledgeable town board members, and while I appreciate the careful due diligence that our selectmen are exercising, it would be a shame to lose good candidates from an over-abundance of caution when readily available and well-tested mechanisms like recusal exist for addressing issues that might arise during their town-board service.

Stephen Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.