Lukewarm Response to Idea of Town Ethics Ordinance

A suggestion for developing a town ethics ordinance had a lukewarm response at the July 7 Town Council meeting.
Councilor Richard Tripp asked for the item to be placed on the agenda.

In recent months, ethics and conflicts of interest have been part of an informal conversation as Councilors and community members criticized board members for voting on issues that affect family members and getting together at outside meetings with the possibility of discussing issues. Recently snapshots of Councilors dining together were posted on the Fire Local 4392 Facebook page, with Councilor Mark Osborne countering that Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores should not be voting on the Fire Department budget because her son is EMS (Emergency Medical Services) Director.

Tripp said, “At the May 19 meeting there was a bunch of discussion as to what does and doesn’t constitute a conflict of interest. The catalyst was the change in Council rules in January of this year.”

In January the Council clarified its ethics policy including the following:

• Section I e. Councilors shall “not benefit personally from his or her Council activities, and disclose to the Town Council any personal, financial or other interest in matters affecting the town which comes before them for action.”

• Section I f. No Council member in his or her official capacity shall introduce, discuss, deliberate, approve or vote on any matter in which he or she or any member of his or her family or business associate has an interest known to said member.

• Section III d. “Make decisions only after all facts on a question have been presented and discussed through the proper venues and channels of the town government.”

• Section 16, following New Hampshire RSA 91-A in the conduct of all non-public meetings.

Tripp asked the rhetorical question, “What is a Conflict of Interest ordinance going to solve?”

He replied that it would define what a conflict of interest is, identify one, and establish a “challenge” procedure when someone thinks an official or employee has a conflict of interest.

“It would get it into the process, and find whether or not it had merit,” Tripp said. “It would have an appeals process, and also an enforcement process for the various kinds of violations.”

Tripp cautioned that Derry didn’t necessarily need its own ordinance. “Is there an RSA to cover this? RSA’s have a lot of teeth, ordinances don’t,” he said. He suggested the Council look at the state RSAs for conflicts of interest and other ethics violations.

Tripp had done some homework and told the Council and audience that Fremont and Windham have ordinances but they are minimal. Tripp said, “They cover the bases, define conflict of interest, have appeals and enforcement procedures.”

Londonderry’s policy has more examples, with a basis for people wanting to challenge it; Keene has an ordinance, but a board-level process, Tripp said. Whoever is challenged on a board will have a hearing before their peers.

Tripp suggested having the code removed from the Town Council rules and adopting an ordinance for everyone, similar to Fremont and Windham, which would fulfill the purpose without going into too much detail.

Tripp suggested that the Council rules be looked at and have pieces taken out that are not enforceable.
No action was taken on his proposal.