It was refreshing to see a dialogue about conflicts of interest at the May 13 council meeting during the line-item budget review. We were happy to see Chris Palmieri and Dawn Miceli disclose their financial conflicts of interest with the recreation department before abstaining from the vote and conversation for that section of the budget. We were starting to wonder if town councilors actually cared about conflicts of interest, so it was a welcomed sight. We just wish officials were more consistent with their disclosures and more firm in their abstentions—even Palmieri and Miceli.
The town charter (Section 1107) and the code (Chapter 28) is pretty clear about conflicts of interest. Both places say that a conflict exists if an official or his/her resident family member, etc. has a private “financial or personal interest” in the outcome of town business up for consideration. If a councilor has to switch hats, it should be a red flag that they might have a conflict to disclose. Open government requires it.
If a conflict exists, town officials and employees have a duty to disclose it “on the written record.” Then, they must “refrain from any comment or vote on the matter and remove himself/herself from the panel until the matter has been dispensed.” It goes way beyond just not voting. They have to leave the discussion, so that their private interests don’t influence town decisions. Even the hint of influence has to be avoided when discharging town duties. No one’s above it.
That’s why we were disappointed that Palmieri—after his grandstand during the recreation budget vote—failed to disclose his biggest paycheck (from his school job) when he voted on the education budget later in the meeting. He wasn’t the only one. Mike Riccio—who pointed fingers at John Barry during March’s toll conversation—failed to disclose a family member’s paycheck from Southington schools. Both voted even though they should have disclosed and abstained. (It’s important to note that Barry’s job and pay with the state library will not be affected no matter how tolls are decided. No financial or personal interest in the outcome; no conflict.)
Of course, “financial interest” is usually easy to see, but “personal interest” can get tricky. It’s not really explained in the charter, but we feel a good example was the Columbus statue controversy. Miceli and Rev. Vicky Triano led the discussion. Neither disclosed their membership in a group that was proposing the statue. Instead, they acted as the group’s mouthpiece. They made and seconded the motion that started a chain of events ending in protests. Neither profited financially from the vote, but it’s clear in hindsight that they weren’t acting as town representatives. They were championing their group’s interests to the council. Miceli and Triano aren’t criminals, but the council might have thought more before they voted if all the motives were out in the open. That might have avoided the embarrassment that followed.
Veterans seem to be the worst culprits (the best argument for term limits). As influence and relationships grow over time, it becomes more important to disclose conflicts up front. We know why groups woo councilors. Squeaky wheels get the grease, so why not have a councilor championing your group at town meetings? Was Palmieri the STEPS president or the council chair when he led the group’s successful lobby against pot dispensaries at zoning meetings? We don’t fault the chamber for naming Miceli as their board chair and PR person, but now it’s hard to see which hat she’s wearing when she’s cheerleading for the chamber or sending us press releases. We think that’s a problem. We think “open government” should be a measuring stick, not just a campaign promise.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.