Opinion: Town should adhere to conflict of interest policy

At the Oct. 8 Middlebury selectboard meeting, Victor Nuovo made a statement concluding that he has no conflict of interest in the current town offices-gym proposal — a conclusion contradicted when he later said that he has an association with the college. The language of the selectboard’s procedure manual is unusually tight and clear in defining conflict of interest, suggesting that those who wrote it in the ’70s had unpleasant experience with this issue and went out of their way to try to avoid it in the future. In situations precisely like this one.
Item 3B of the manual’s Rules Relating to Conflicts of Interest on the Board of Selectmen describes Matters Which Must be Disclosed. Those matters are:
“Any association or agreement to associate with such a business entity, whether as an employee, director, officer, broker, agent, or in any other capacity where the Town’s agreement with such business entity depends upon the official action of the Board.”
The college is a business entity. By this definition, Prof. Nuovo’s statement of an association with the college presents a conflict of interest for all matters before the board that involve the college. According to the manual, from that point on, he must have nothing to do with the town office-gym proposal.
The entire board is remiss in failing to take appropriate action as mandated by its manual, and particular responsibility in this regard must rest with Chairman Dean George. Once this issue was brought before the board, as it was two meetings ago in a statement and handout, the board was obligated to consider it and act promptly. Instead, the topic of conflict of interest was tabled for a month and, as of this writing, hasn’t been addressed.
This failure to act as its policies direct tarnishes the entire board. It is not only an ethical failure, it is actionable. As long as this situation continues, Middlebury has a renegade selectboard that refuses to play by its own rules.
I call on all members of the selectboard to read their manual’s conflict of interest language and publicly state any associations they and their immediate family members have with the college. If they have a conflict of interest as defined by the board’s procedure manual, they must promptly recuse themselves from any board-level participation in the current town-college proposal. To her credit, Susan Shashok has done so; Prof. Nuovo has not.
And here’s a suggestion: Before the selectboard takes up any new matter, perhaps the chairman might routinely refer board members to the manual’s conflict of interest section and ask whether anyone has a conflict to disclose. That could clear the air from the start, avoiding later embarrassment and legal questions.
In the meantime, at least one selectboard member is still prominently involved in a project for which he has a conflict of interest. That fact is a black eye for the town office-gym proposal and the selectboard.
Barbara Shapiro

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