Aldermen eye conflict of interest policy

VERGENNES — At the suggestion of two residents who sit on other city boards, Vergennes aldermen on Dec. 20 agreed to consider at a future meeting adopting a formal conflict of interest policy. 
The recommendation came from school board member Cheryl Brinkman and planner Alex McGuire, who asked aldermen to either consider adopting a conflict of interest policy or ordinance, or give residents the option of adopting one on Town Meeting Day.
After discussion, aldermen asked City Manager Mel Hawley to bring in a model Vermont League of Cities and Towns policy for them to discuss.
Brinkman, who was at the meeting, and McGuire, who contacted aldermen via email, said their boards operate with such a policy and believe it would be helpful to the council. 
“We just wanted to open the discussion with you,” Brinkman said. “If I were sitting on the city council I would want to develop a policy myself.”
Brinkman said conflict of interest policies can remove doubt from residents’ minds. 
“This is really to add more transparency,” she said. “If people are questioning any action of the city council, this really puts it to bed.”
McGuire said she simply thought it would be smart for the council to adopt such a policy. 
“Vergennes is very lucky to have many concerned citizens engaged in a full range of committees and activities on behalf of the city, including our city councilors,” McGuire wrote. “A city council policy… is simply one more way to show just how committed councilors are to both Vergennes and a transparent political process.”
Deputy Mayor Randy Ouellette told Brinkman at the meeting that aldermen follow a “code of conduct” that leads them to steer clear of issues in which they have a conflict of interest, but Hawley confirmed there is no code, policy or ordinance now in place. 
“The city council for decades has operated with an unwritten conflict of interest policy,” Hawley said. “For the council to act on a conflict of interest policy is good business to me.”
But Hawley suggested a policy, rather than a law. For example, he said he at times answers questions from aldermen on whether they should steer clear of issues. A policy would answer those questions for him, he said. 
“There is a very big difference between a prohibition and an ordinance,” Hawley said. “I don’t think a conflict of interest policy is about fining and punishing people.”
Also at the Dec. 20 meeting, state Reps. Diane Lanpher (D-Vergennes) and Greg Clark (R-Vergennes) gave aldermen their takes on the challenges and issues legislators will face during the upcoming 2012 session. 
Lanpher spoke first and at greater length, starting with the effect that Tropical Storm Irene would have on deliberations in Montpelier in the months to come. 
“It is going to definitely influence every committee room’s conversation,” Lanpher said.
Although the Agency of Transportation has largely caught up with work on state infrastructure, Lanpher said towns’ bottom lines were hit harder than state government, even considering the loss of state office buildings in Waterbury. 
She noted that towns saw major damage to about 2,600 roads and 1,000 culverts, while residents saw Irene destroy or damage roughly 1,400 homes.
In response, legislators will be working to fast-track local aid, especially highway funds, Lanpher said, and state officials will continue to devote resources toward helping town officials apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants.
All that will cost money, she said, as would another initiative that will allow towns — including Ferrisburgh, Addison and Panton — to give property tax breaks to residents who were victimized by floods from Irene or spring’s heavy rains. The up-to $3 million cost of that bill would be borne by taxpayers statewide, not just in the affected towns, she said. 
Lanpher added tough decisions on budget priorities made this winter could chart the state’s course over the next 50 years
“I’m looking at the longer-term picture,” she said. 
Clark said he was concerned about the value of local grand lists dropping “dramatically,” the “tenor” of the conversation surrounding a possible increase to the statewide education property tax rate, and the failure to include in education discussions “ways to make things better.” 
Clark said it will also be important to make sure there was strong “communication from local to state officials,” given the post-Irene needs of many towns. 
In other business, aldermen:
• Heard from new planning commission chairman Shannon Haggett that planners intend to complete their rewrite of city zoning and subdivision regulations in January and hold a public hearing on Feb. 20. 
Haggett noted the zoning laws will, when and if adopted by aldermen after at least one following hearing, conform to the most recent city plan, and that the subdivision regulations have not been updated since first written in 1976.
• Reappointed Hawley as the city’s zoning administrator. Planners had recommended that action. Hawley has served in his second tenure in that capacity for about a decade. 
• Discussed a request from some citizens and landlords that enforcement of the overnight winter parking ban on city streets be eased. Some apartment buildings do not have enough off-street parking to accommodate all of their tenants, and residents have objected to ticketing when it is not snowing. Some have suggested warnings or only ticketing or towing during storms, and one landlord asked aldermen to “think outside the box” for a solution.  
Hawley said snow removal is not limited to during snow events, however, because cleanup must be done in days following storms. Hawley also said the process to change the law would take longer than this winter will last. Mayor Michael Daniels said aldermen will consider alternatives in the spring.
• Heard from Lanpher and Daniels that the long-delayed project to move the city’s former rail depot a quarter-mile north from North Main Street to a new home next to the Agency of Transportation’s commuter lot is still on track. Lanpher said funding is secure, and Daniels said he believes will go out to bid this week. 
• Were told by Daniels that 513 boats traveled up Otter Creek to tie up to city docks in 2011, a decline of about 200 from 2010. Of those boats, 305 were powerboats and 208 were sailboats, according to the mayor. 
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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