BRISTOL - Since the November election, the City Council contains members of just one political party - Democrats - so scrutiny is likely to be greater, according to Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu.
With that in mind, she had Corporation Counsel Wyland Clift review the city’s ethical standards for the council members at the November meeting.
“One of the responsibilities of public office, as stated in our code of ethics, is to carry out your duties with the highest moral and ethical standards, regardless of personal consideration,” Clift said. “Your conduct at all times should be for the public good and you must avoid a conflict between your public and your private interests and responsibilities.”
He broke that down into two major categories: not taking any official action in which there is a conflict of interest, and not accepting gifts or anything of value “that an ordinary member of the public would also not be entitled to.”
If you have a financial or personal interest, direct or indirect, in any transaction you are called upon to take action on in your official capacity, “you have to excuse yourself from that transaction,” he told the council members.
“You need to disclose that immediately to the body that you’re sitting in, whether it’s the council or it’s the Bristol Development Authority or whatever. You need to leave the proceedings. You cannot participate or even sit there. Then the City Charter states that within seven days you have to file a written statement of why you had the conflict with the city clerk,” he said.
Clift passed out copies of the city ordinances so that each council member could familiarize themselves with it.
The difference between the charter and the ordinances, is “the charter is like our constitution, and our ordinances are things that we have a little more control over,” he explained. The ordinance “kind of put the meat on the skeleton of what’s in the charter.”
Now if a council member were personally to appear before a city commission, if they were instrumental in having any member of that commission appointed, that has to be disclosed, he said. “That commission member has to then make a decision as to whether they can impartially sit on that question, and they have to so state for the purpose of the record.”
When it comes to gifts, there is “what I like to refer to as the ‘you can accept a coffee rule,’” Clift continued. While the ordinances state “no official can accept or solicit anything in value” at the very end is it says this doesn’t apply “to the receipt of any food or beverage or both consumed on a single occasion.”
“I don’t know if you eat a whole box of doughnuts in one sitting, maybe that’s OK,” he joked. “That’s kind of an interesting provision.”
“If you are really in a quandary about ‘do I have a conflict or not?’ you are allowed to request an advisory opinion from the ethics board,” he said. “Is our ethics board up and running?”
“Well they haven’t met in two years, but they are still a panel,” Zoppo-Sassu said.
“They have been asked for opinions in my time on council,” Council member Mary Fortier added.
Clift noted that the city’s ethics board is one of the few boards whose deliberations are conducted in secret, to protect office holders from frivolous accusations. “If, and only if, there was a finding of probable cause, would it then come out and be made public.”
Zoppo-Sassu asked how council members should handle informal discussions about council business.
“The rule of thumb thing we’ve employed is, when there’s been a quorum, which is four of us, at any given point, that there can be no discussion of agenda items or business. We can discuss Red Sox versus Yankees, we can stand in front of the Democratic Town Committee and give monthly reports about what we’re doing on council, but there just can’t be consensus conversation concerning action items,” she said.
“It goes without question that you folks are going to meet each other socially, and that’s not a problem,” he said, however there can be no discussion of city business.
Zoppo-Sassu said that concerns “my major pet peeve, which is the ‘meeting after the meeting.’”
Clift agreed that continuing discussions about city business after a meeting ends can be a problem, especially if it’s a smaller meeting of a council committee. During the meeting there is a recorder going and minutes being taken, and it’s open to the public, he said.
“After the meeting ends of course maybe there’s a few members of the public and they quite naturally want to come up and keep talking about what just happened. Don’t do it. Go home and don’t talk about it, because that would be an illegal continuation of the meeting. We’ve had issues with that, we’ve been brought up before the Freedom of Information Commission in the past,” he said.
“It’s very easy to slip into but just try to remember when the meeting is over, just talk about the Yankees,” he added.
You can also get into trouble discussing things over email, Clift continued. “The big exception is the party caucus. As long as there are no other individuals not in the caucus they’re allowed to have discussions without it being covered under FOI.”
“The way we’ve been handling this over the last two years is that I will send out an update on a particular issue, but nobody responds, Zoppo-Sassu said. “So it’s a receipt of information without any type of round robin discussion.”
Council member David Preleski said it often happens that committee members will share information and experiences.
“Yes, but the public’s business is supposed to be in public,” Clift said. “So you’ve got to save it for discussion in the public so it’s on the record. It’s not so easy, but that’s the goal we must all try to attain.”
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or email@example.com.