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Pond committee raises thorny conflict of interest question, gets exemption

The Select Board tackled the issue of financial conflicts of interest on town boards and committees at its April 6 meeting, prompted by a request for help from the Bare Hill Pond Watershed Protection Committee.

Committee Chair Bruce Leicher told the board it recently came to the committee’s attention that members who are pond abutters might be perceived as having a financial interest in votes taken by the committee. Following a lengthy discussion, the Select Board voted unanimously to authorize all pond committee members, abutters and nonabutters, to continue to vote on matters that impact the pond because it is a resource shared by the entire town.

Leicher told the Press that the issue came up earlier this year when the Conservation Commission asked the Parks and Recreation Commission for advice on the impact of building an athletic field near the beach. Parks and Rec Chair Bob O’Shea raised the question of whether pond committee members who were pond abutters should recuse themselves from votes taken regarding that field so as not to run afoul of the state’s conflict of interest laws.

Leicher said he spoke with someone at the State Ethics Commission who said because the pond committee would only be advising the Conservation Commission, the conflict of interest rules were not applicable. But, Leicher added, the response of the ethics commission raised the more general question about other votes the committee routinely takes, so he brought that question to Town Counsel Mark Lanza. Lanza said he didn’t think there was a problem, but he recommended the committee follow the exemption procedure outlined in state laws. That procedure includes asking a licensed real estate agent for an opinion on whether decisions made by the pond committee affect the property values of pond abutters and, based on those findings, asking the Select Board to authorize the committee to continue to act on the matters that come before it.

The agent chosen, David Haschig of Ruo & Haschig Realty, said in a letter to the Select Board that the pond committee’s decisions impact not only abutters, but all users of Bare Hill Pond and its watershed, and for that reason it should authorize all pond committee members to vote on matters specified in the state’s exemption to the conflict of interest law.

Examples of votes covered by the exemption include hiring a wetlands consultant for environmental monitoring of the pond and hiring a contractor to perform pump house maintenance. The exemption does not cover votes that could affect the integrity of a member, such as an issue involving a neighboring property.

During the Select Board discussion, member Lucy Wallace raised the possibility that other town boards and committees, such as the Conservation Commission and Historical Commission, might need this exemption. She asked Tim Bragan to put that question to town counsel and report back to the board.

Leicher told the board the pond committee currently has three members who are abutters, three nonabutters, and one open seat. Select Board member Kara Minar asked if the committee’s charge contained any language about the composition of the board with respect to abutters, and Leicher said no. He said the board appoints pond committee members, and it could add that language. Minar said they might consider that at the board’s upcoming annual strategic planning meeting.

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