Autumn in the North Cemetery.

Sixty miles west of Boston, Massachusetts there is the small New England town of Sturbridge. Located at the junction of I-90 (The Mass Pike), and I-84 it has become known as the "Crossroads of New England". The town was first settled over 300 years ago, and like other small New England towns it has grown just enough over the years to be in a difficult place today. How do we embrace the future without forgetting how we got to our present? How do we attract the right kind of growth, and maintain who we are? And, what about our culture out here in Central Massachusetts?

These pages will cause one to think about how to protect what we have, our future direction, and how to move on in the very best way.

Those thoughts, and other ramblings, will hopefully inspire more thought, conversation, action, and occasionally a smile...

...seems to be working so far

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How To Be Obvious Without Really Trying

Conflict of interest is not usually something one would condone.  It leads to a lot of issues that can be difficult to explain, and not always in the best interest of the municipality, or company.  On a statewide basis it is necessary, and required.  On a municipal level it is needed as well, but with a caveat.

    noun /ˈkavēˌät/  /ˈkäv-/ 
    caveats, plural
    1. A warning or proviso of specific stipulations, conditions, or limitations

In a small community with a small population where everyone knows everyone, and the the man picking up the trash may also be the towns assessor, the chairman of the Board of Health may also be a police officer, or the son of a selectman could be employed by the DPW,  it is extremely difficult to expect that local laws forbidding conflict of interest can be effective.

I know.  I know.  Anything that suggests, or gives a foot up to something that could lead to impropriety should be supported.

I agree..., but when the town only has a population that barely lends itself to filling the seats of the elected boards and committees, not to mention the voluntary ones, it is necessary to use ones head a bit more than a restrictive bylaw would allow.  That bylaw may unintentionally lead to empty seats on boards, job vacancies, and a spot or two unfilled in the ranks of volunteers.  In the scheme of things, it would be rare thing not allow ones son to work on the DPW because Mom is on the Historic Commission, but the point is that in a small town it could happen.  And, no, we won't be crippled by a restrictive bylaw, it is just that in a small town, the state law covers it all so why set ourselves up?  No need to add to the existing law unless there is something, or someone specific that one wants to restrict.

It's funny how bylaws get spawned.  Some come from an issue that needs to be resolved, or prevented from happening again.  Some are written to prevent a situation from ever occurring in the first place, and others are written as a man-made restriction designed to limit the actions of a specific person, or persons.

It happens, and it can happen here, too.  In fact, it may be happening already.

You be the judge.  Do you feel that the Board of Selectmen are acting in our best interest with a general concern for preventing conflicts of interest, or a specific "conflict of interest"?

The answer seems to leap from the article below.

Article published May 4, 2011

STURBRIDGE —  In a 4-1 vote, selectmen moved a conflict-of-interest bylaw amendment that will go in front of voters at the annual town meeting June 6.

Selectmen debated the matter for more than 30 minutes Monday night. Selectman Mary Blanchard opposed the article, calling it “too restrictive” and going “well beyond” the state’s conflict of interest law.

“I think this goes beyond a degree that is not needed,” Mrs. Blanchard said. “We have trouble enough getting people to join boards and if you pass this bylaw, you’re going to have fewer people.”

“We’re human beings and I don’t think we have objectivity with respect to immediate family members,” Selectman Mary B. Dowling said.

The drafter of the bylaw, Ms. Dowling said its purpose is to remove the risk or appearance of any conflict of interest or potential bias of any town committee or board.

While town committees and boards continue to be bound by the state law, Ms. Dowling said, the town bylaw would further define and limit the participation of Sturbridge board, committee and commission members in matters before them involving immediate family members.

— Craig S. Semon

Below is the abstract for the Massachusetts Conflict of Interest Law, it is very restrictive.  How could the town of Sturbridge bylaw be even more restrictive?  What other areas could a new bylaw touch that the state law does not?

Introduction to the Conflict of Interest Law for the Public Sector

Chapter 268A of the General Laws governs your conduct as a public official or employee. Below are some of the general rules that you must follow. You could face civil and criminal penalties if you take a prohibited action. Many aspects of the law are complicated and there are often exemptions to the general rules. We encourage you to seek legal advice from the Commission or your agency's legal counsel regarding how the law would apply to you in a particular situation.

In general:

  • You may not ask for or accept anything (regardless of its value), if it is offered in exchange for your agreeing to perform or not perform an official act.
  • You may not ask for or accept anything worth $50 or more from anyone with whom you have official dealings. Examples of prohibited "gifts" include: sports tickets, costs of drinks and meals, travel expenses, conference fees, gifts of appreciation, entertainment expenses, free use of vacation homes and complimentary tickets to charitable events. If a prohibited gift is offered: you may refuse or return it; you may donate it to a non-profit organization, provided you do not take the tax write-off; you may pay the giver the full value of the gift; or, in the case of certain types of gifts, it may be considered "a gift to your public employer", provided it remains in the office and does not ever go home with you. You may not accept honoraria for a speech that is in any way related to your official duties, unless you are a state legislator.

  • You may not hire, promote, supervise, or otherwise participate in the employment of your immediate family or your spouse's immediate family.
  • You may not take any type of official action that will affect the financial interests of your immediate family or your spouse's immediate family. For instance, you may not participate in a licensing or inspection process involving a family member's business.
  • You may not take any official action affecting your own financial interest, or the financial interest of a business partner, private employer, or any organization for which you serve as an officer, director or trustee. For instance: you may not take any official action regarding an "after hours" employer, or its geographic competitors; you may not participate in licensing, inspection, zoning or other issues that affect a company you own, or its competitors; if you serve on the Board of a non-profit organization (that is substantially engaged in business activities), you may not take any official action which would impact that organization, or its competitors.
  • Unless you qualify for an exemption, you may not have more than one job with the same municipality or county, or more than one job with the state.
  • Except under special circumstances, you may not have a financial interest in a contract with your public employer. For example, if you are a full time town employee, a company you own may not be a vendor to that town unless you meet specific criteria, the contract is awarded by a bid process, and you publicly disclose your financial interest.
  • You may not represent anyone but your public employer in any matter in which your public employer has an interest. For instance, you may not contact other government agencies on behalf of a company, an association, a friend, or even a charitable organization.
  • You may not ever disclose confidential information, data or material which you gained or learned as a public employee.
  • Unless you make a proper, public disclosure in writing -- including all the relevant facts -- you may not take any action that could create an appearance of impropriety, or could cause an impartial observer to believe your official actions are tainted with bias or favoritism.
  • You may not use your official position to obtain unwarranted privileges, or any type of special treatment, for yourself or anyone else. For instance: you may not approach your subordinates, vendors whose contracts you oversee, or people who are subject to your official authority to propose private business dealings.
  • You may not use public resources for political or private purposes. Examples of "public resources" include: office computers, phones, fax machines, postage machines, copiers, official cars, staff time, sick time, uniforms, and official seals.
  • You may not, after leaving public service, take a job involving public contracts or any other particular matter in which you participated as a public employee.


  1. I understand Mary Dowling to have said that, if she gets the wording she wants, a person, say a selectman, would not be allowed to vote on a matter that another committee had voted on and brought to the selectmen, if a an immediate family member of that selectman was on said committee. She got her wish on the vote which was 4 to 1 in her favor. Something doesn't feel right about this. I did not read such a scenario in the law you posted here. Things seem to get more and more convoluted around here as time goes on.

  2. Wally: I will be voting against it, it is just not needed, we have taken
    great strides with the recent changes to the open meeting law, changes that
    provide a significant level of protection to the values of and a transparency
    to an open government.


  3. What if one person is, himself or herself, on two committees? Are they allowed to vote the same issue on both committees?

  4. If, say, Selectman Mary Dowling or any other Selectman, has a close friend on another board or committee, is that selectman allowed to vote when that committee comes before the selectmen?

    If a member of Board A has "a significant other," and the board or committee of this significant other comes before Board A, can the member of Board A who has "a significant other" on said board or committee vote on an issue brought before them if the "significant other" does not himself or herself appear in the room?

    Where would the line be drawn as to who would be considered "a significant other?" Would a significant other be someone a person is dating, has dated once or twice, was once married to, is living with, has been rumored about, etc.?

    How about if a son or daughter has their significant other living with them in their parents' home, and the parents of the young couple are on two or more town committees? If one of their committees comes before the other is it acceptable for both parents to vote?

    We are on a slippery slope. Conflict of interest laws exist already. We would do well to follow the them, and not "re-write" them on this level.

  5. As far as it looks it is only immediate family members who would be impacted with the proposed bylaw. All friends, significant others and business associates will not lose their right to participate in open government.

  6. Dear anonymous, that is what conflict of interest laws of the Commonwealth are written to do. Why are we writing more? Unless, the agenda is more specific tha what is being written.

  7. Hopefully, our Sturbridge citizens will pay close attention to Mary Dowling’s proposition. After watching the BOS discuss this and vote 4 to 1 to put it on the warrant for vote, it’s clear to see that, for some, this proposition looks like a good idea on it’s surface. It is not.
    Suppose this rule was to be enforced in national politics. Let’s say the president has a sibling congressman, and this congressman has voted in the affirmative for a bill the president is opposed to. Because his sibling has already voted for the bill, the president would not be able to cast his vote (his Veto).
    I don’t see it as a conflict of interest when members of a family on separate boards or committees vote on the same item. If, however, a vote from one would benefit the other monetarily, that’s a different story and is already, of course, prohibited by law.
    We all know there are many relationships among members of our boards and committees, and some of the friendships, circles, and cliques are closer than many familial relationships. We do not and cannot reasonably monitor or police those relationships.
    We have state conflict of interest laws that we should enforce. Why open a Pandora’s box?

  8. The new Ethics by-law is a good thing it keeps families from voting on each others salaries, contracts, appointments, promotions and who knows what else. It is a good thing just think back to the Town Administrator selection process. Blood is thicker then water.

  9. Yes, but the state law covers that already. No need for more of the same, and more restrictions when the sole purpose is obvious.

  10. To Anonymous who thinks this is a good idea:
    If you and your friends are trying to make a new law to take away someone's LEGAL vote, be woman enough to say so. This has nothing to do with salaries, etc, which are already covered by law. Don't take advantage by confusing people. Enforce the laws we have. This is like a hunt for a vernal pool or spotted salamander where there is none, just to prevent what one particular group doesn't want. Pardon me, but your agenda is showing.

  11. What the hell are you talking about? Town officials should not vote on family member's business before their boards.

  12. What the hell are YOU talking about? Name your fear - one that isn't already covered in laws that exist? Which family's "business" is concerning you? WHO are we to be afraid of? Does the law not pertain to these people?


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