Opinion: Time to move past distractions and focus on project
Having these past few months observed an unfortunate level of heightened discourse over the issues surrounding the Middlebury Town Hall and the corresponding concern over “conflict of interest,” I chose to attend the Jan. 2 meeting of the selectboard, in which a complaint of conflict of interest in three recent votes was being considered.
I was very saddened to hear at the start of that meeting that Victor Nuovo has resigned from the board. I recall working with Victor on town-school issues when I was on the ID-4 school board years ago, and have always respected his work on behalf of the town and the citizens of Middlebury. His experience and dedication will be missed.
I am not a party to the complaint. My intention on coming to the meeting was to try to express that the issue of “conflict of interest” need not be seen as a personal charge. My own views on the matter while chair of ID-4 were that small boards in small towns (and small states) increase the likelihood of associations between board members and various vendors and other business interests in town, and that members should be aware of this and avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.
“Appearance” is the key term. And, as I expressed at the meeting, it is in the nature of the situation that “appearance” is in the eye of the observer, and board members should understand and respect that general fact of political life. This, I think, is key to allowing a smooth board functioning that preserves the public’s confidence in the general impartiality of the board.
There should not be a need to debate whether a board member stands to gain materially from a particular discussion or decision by the board. For example, the Vermont School Board Association recommends that boards incorporate the following into their policies: “Agree to recuse and remove oneself from board deliberation and votes when necessary to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.” It seems wise to emphasize the phrase “avoid the appearance of conflict of interest” — again, to allow for the maintenance of public confidence while discussions take place and decision are made.
Personally, I am still pondering what the best prospects are for the town in resolving the needs for a professionally appropriate town office building and a municipal gym. I would like the discussion now to consider the important issues of the character of the town center, the fate of an historic WPA building, the functional coordination between town and school boards and buildings, and the cost and affordability of the ultimate projects, weighed against the ability of the new OR old buildings to serve the community well. I am hopeful that we can move beyond the current distractions over conflict of interest to consider only such matters of merit when we, as citizens, finally have our say over the future of the town facilities.
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