City council adopts conflict policy

VERGENNES — After making a couple of tweaks they discussed in January, Vergennes aldermen on Feb. 21 adopted their first official conflict of interest policy, one that largely follows a Vermont League of Cities and Towns template.
In their discussions in recent meetings, aldermen said they have never known an instance where a member of the council has acted in a manner that would violate such a policy.
But they have also agreed it would clarify for members of the public what guidelines they follow and make public what rules future councils will follow.
According to the new policy, its purpose is “to ensure that the business of this municipality will be conducted in such a way that no member of the City Council … will gain a personal or financial advantage from his or her decisions and so that the public trust in members of the City Council will be preserved. It is also the intent of this policy to insure that all decisions made by the City Council are based on the best interest of the community at large.”
Specifically, the policy states that aldermen shall not:
•  “Participate in any official action if he or she has a conflict of interest in the matter under consideration.”
•  “Personally, or through any member of his or her household, business associate, employer or employee, represent, appear for, or negotiate in a private capacity on behalf of any person or organization in a cause, proceeding, application or other matter pending before the City Council if he or she has a conflict of interest in the matter under consideration.
•  “Accept gifts or other offerings for personal gain by virtue of their office that are not available to the public in general.”
•  “Use resources not available to the general public … for private gain or personal purposes.”
Aldermen made a few changes to the model VLCT policy, including slightly expanding the VLCT’s defined list of aldermen’s family members.
They also eliminated three references that gave them the right to vote to force a fellow council member to step away from the table.
Hawley on Thursday said aldermen did not believe they had the authority to force a fellow council member to recuse himself or herself from a discussion or a vote, thinking that only residents had the ultimate right to do so. Council members do retain the right to censure a fellow alderman if they believe he or she has crossed a line, he said, and that each alderman would in the end have to answer to voters.
Hawley said aldermen also clarified the reference that allows them to speak to the council on behalf of fellow residents, a provision that they said was ambiguous, and therefore too restrictive, in the model VLCT policy.
He said aldermen were concerned that if they simply adopted the model policy that the could not have spoken on behalf of residents in any cases, and added language saying that they could speak unless there were a specific conflict.
“People come to city council members for guidance, and then the city council member might want to advocate for the this person,” Hawley said. “And the way it was written it kind of stated a city council member couldn’t advocate for his or her constituents.”
The Vergennes Development Review Board and Planning Commission already have conflict of interest policies. Hawley has said he will recommend the city’s boards of listers and civil authority also adopt such a policy.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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