Views mixed on whether charter vote was conflict

By MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

Councilor Calvin Brown doesn’t see a problem with his recent participation in a discussion and subsequent vote on charter change regarding residency of councilors inspired by his recent move out of district.

His Republican colleagues on the council are giving him a pass on the issue… this time.

The Republican Town Committee is uncommitted as to what actions it wants to take regarding Brown’s vote to send the change back to the Charter Revision Commission for further amendment.

And the mayor is saying the councilor’s actions were clearly unethical.

On June 30, the council held a special meeting to hold a public hearing on three proposed changes to the city charter and subsequently vote whether to accept, reject, or send back to the Charter Revision Commission and proposed edits to the charter changes.

One of the proposed changes would have required councilors to remain in the district from which they were elected during their term. Under the change, if a councilor moved from his district—even within the city—they would have to step down. As submitted by the CRC, the change would take place immediately after the November referendum if the council sent it to a public vote.

Subsquently the change would have required Brown – or any councilor who moved prior to November— to immediately step down.

After a confrontation at a council meeting in January, Brown revealed that he had bought a house in Bristol, but outside of the First District, from which he was elected in November. The closing of the house was in August prior to the election. Brown said the move was necessary due to family issues that required vacating his home in the First District.

A ruling from city’s corporate counsel said that the charter was silent as to what would happen in Brown’s case.

The proposal from CRC was an attempt to address that silence in the charter.

When the council voted to send the proposal back to the CRC to change it so it would go into effect in 2017 rather than 2016, Brown voted in favor of sending the charter change proposal back to the committee. The rest of the council also voted unanimously to send it back.

After the meeting, there was some chatter on the Facebook page of the Bristol Republicans questioning whether Brown’s vote was a conflict of interest.

The city’s rule on conflict of interest, Sec. 2-129, states: “No official who has a financial or personal interest, either individually or as a member of a group that has a financial or personal interest, direct or indirect… shall vote upon or otherwise participate in the transaction, contract or decision and shall excuse himself from the proceedings.”

(For more information on the Code of Ethics, see related story where the chair of the Board of Ethics is interviewed.)

Emailed about whether he had been advised he could participate in the discussion, even though the proposal seemed directed at him, Brown said in an email, “I was not advised to the contrary.”

As to whether he him self had considered the possibility his participation and subsequent vote might be construed as a conflict of interest, Brown said, “There were three lawyers sitting in the front row for the entire duration of the public hearing and the special meeting, as well as three lawyers sitting up on the council. No one, at any time, suggested that I was conflicted, because according to the law I am clearly not conflicted. Bristol’s charter defines a conflict of interest very narrowly.”

“The facts are that the proposed change would affect any and all councilors moving forward, not just me. Therefore, we were all allowed to discuss and vote on the matter,” said Brown.

Mayor Ken Cockayne, who has had a combative relationship with Brown over the years, had problems with Brown’s participation in the discussion and vote.

“If you’re asking if it was unethical, I believe it was,” said Cockayne in phone interview. “He was voting on an issue that had direct financial impact to Calvin Brown – if he stays (on the council) or not.”

Councilors draw a salary from the city.

Cockayne said he didn’t raise a question about the propriety of Brown’s participation at the meeting because Brown should have recognized the conflict himself. He noted councilors have regularly recused themselves because their participation might be considered a conflict of interest.

Although the topic of conflict of interest arose on the GOP’s Facebook page, the Republican’s new chair Jeffrey Caggiano said at this point there has been no decision made by the party to file an ethics complaint.

However, Caggiano said he was surprised that Brown weighed in on the charter question since he was directly involved. But, Caggiano said the change wasn’t directed at Brown and was intended to close a loophole in the charter. The fact that the majority of the council supported the change, including Brown, demonstrated the importance of closing the loophole, said the GOP chair.

Democratic Town Committee chair Dean Kilbourne said, “Council member Brown’s move over district lines was not a violation of the city charter or state law… Apparently since the residency issue came up a second time in the span of 40 years, it was flagged as a top priority for the Charter Revision Commission.”

“Nobody was objecting to the commission clarifying or updating language with an across the board residency requirement for council members,” said Kilbourne. “The objection was to applying it retroactively… It appears that the City Council rejected the punitive retroactive charter change.”

“All members participated in the discussion…. it is my understanding that at no time did anybody suggest that Council member Brown not be allowed to participate in the discussion,” said Kilbourne.

The council members were asked if they had concerns about Brown’s participation.

Second district Republican Councilor Jodi Zils-Gagne, who is one of the three attorneys on the council (the others are Democrats Fortier and Preleski), said, “I did think about a conflict of interest as we were discussing the matter at the council meeting. However, knowing that we were going to vote to send it back to the committee for revision before actually voting on it as a final vote, I did not see the harm in letting Calvin have his say at that meeting. Rest assured, however, I do plan on objecting when a final vote is taken on this matter by the council, after it returns from the Charter Revision Committee. (A meeting between the council and CRC was scheduled for July 12, after the Observer went to press.) There is most definitely a conflict of interest, and Calvin should not be able to help decide his own future. “

Anthony D’Amato, the Republican who shares the First District with Brown and who ran against Brown this past November, said, “In my judgment at the meeting that the high likelihood of the language in its current form, needing to return to the Charter Revision Commission, I personally did not take a great deal of issue with discussion and a vote to ‘send back’ to the committee by Brown. However, if and when discussion leads to a final vote on language coming out of Charter Revision, whether that is in its current form or an adjusted form, Councilman Brown will need to recuse himself. I think the participation by Brown in the first round of this discussion will muddy the waters for him. If I were him, I still would have recused myself to avoid this entire discussion, even if some or all of my counterparts were okay with my participation. I think the argument that ‘others didn’t object’ is one built on sand rather than concrete, it lacks an in-depth analysis of the situation at hand. Finally, I would have also consulted corporation counsel for an opinion prior to engaging in the meeting.”

Preleski, one of the three attorneys on council said, “Prior to our special council meeting, I reached out to each council member and the mayor to discuss my opinion and to get theirs. I also did research regarding some history within our city and I discussed each of the charter recommendations with several people including other attorneys.  Not one council member brought up the conflict issue with me before the meeting.”

“I don’t believe a conflict existed on a number of levels,” said Preleski, who serves the Second District. “First, the residency rule applies generally going forward and, according to the charter revision discussion, is not about councilman Brown. Second, the vote taken was really procedural rather than substantive. We voted to return the issue back to charter revision for changes that are substantive. The scope of the definition of a conflict under the ethics commission is rather narrow. There have been other determinations dating years back that show guidance to us and suggest there is no conflict.”

“There is a reason the word conflict is often used in the military,” said Democrat Fortier, the third attorney on the council. “It defines what happens when two groups are at odds. In this latest ‘conflict,’ the real loser is not Calvin, or the Republicans who brought forward this issue and attempted to attack his integrity, but instead it’s Bristol residents who deserve a better dialogue from their elected officials on matters of importance.”

“Calvin is a member of a group, and we are all affected by charter revision,” said Fortier, who represents the Third District. “We cannot retroactively apply a law. I do not believe there is a conflict for him to vote, and represent his constituents on a charter issue even though he was the target of the effort.”

As for why he brought forth no objection to Brown’s participation, Councilor David Mills, the Republican serving in the Third District said, “To my knowledge, each councilor has the responsibility to determine if they have a conflict of interest in any matter that may directly affect them in any way. If they do, it is up to them to recuse themselves and walk out of the room without discussing or voting on the issue.”

Bristol Democratic Town Committee first vice president—and a former city councilor—Atty. Kate Matthews held office when other questions arose regarding conflict of interest.

“During my term as a city councilor, the Bristol Ethics Commission, headed by then-chair, Jim Donovan, did a lot to define the contours of what a ‘conflict’ is under the Bristol Ethics code,” explained Matthews.

During her term, Matthews said, “We discussed this in the context of whether a union-affiliated city councilor could vote on the approval/disapproval of his own union contract when it came before the Council,” said Matthews. “We discussed this issue in the context of whether one city councilor who owned a number of multi-family homes in the city could vote on approval/ disapproval of a proposal to increase inspection fees for landlords. There are other examples… In every circumstance, the determination was that there was ‘no conflict of interest.’”

“In my opinion, there is no meaningful difference between Calvin’s vote regarding charter revision and the foregoing examples I cited,” said Matthews.bristol city seal