Right now the Burlington City Council is deciding whether it should sell Burlington’s homegrown telecom to either an experienced and highly-regarded Canadian corporation (which has offered $30.5 million) or a well-intentioned, but inexperienced and underfunded local group (which has offered $12 million). My VPR Commentary on the merits of the proceedings, can be found here, but the purpose of this post is of course to look at an ethical issue that just popped up during an unexpected turn in the proceedings.

City Councilor Karen Paul has been actively involved in the new owner search to date, right up to voting to select the two finalists. Councilor Paul then evidently discovered that she had a conflict, on the eve of the final vote. VT Digger quoted her as saying “I have a professional conflict of interest that came to light over the weekend,”….“I’m not able to speak directly to this conflict, but I would like to state that my conflict has nothing whatsoever to do with the parties seeking to buy Burlington Telecom.” If you look at the comments to the Digger article, it is evident that there are a number of folks out there who took umbrage with the seemingly late disclosure; that Councilor Paul did not disclose the details of the conflict; and that the content of the disclosure was somewhat nebulous.  After all, it certainly piques one’s curiosity as to what the conflict could be if it “has nothing whatsoever to do with the parties seeking to buy Burlington Telecom.” It is also notable that the only way to get out of voting on the Burlington City Council, is either not to show up at a meeting (which is against the rules) or to declare a conflict of interest.

Burlington’s conflict of interest policy, happens to be more then just policy, it is in fact special state law. It is special state law because it is enshrined in the City Charter and every municipal charter is a special state law, applicable only to the municipality in question. Section 133 of the Charter states that “[n]o City officer shall participate in any fashion or cast a vote on any matter in which either a direct or indirect conflict of interest is present. Nor shall a City officer participate or vote on any question in which such participation or vote would reasonably create in the mind of an objective person the appearance of a direct or indirect conflict of interest. The presence of a circumstance as above enumerated shall be regarded as a conflict of interest situation. In the event a conflict of interest situation arises, the affected City officer shall at the first opportunity formally declare the existence of the conflict of interest situation. Thereafter, such officer shall not participate in any fashion at any level, formally or informally, in the discussion of the matter, nor cast a vote of any kind at any level with respect to the matter to which the conflict of interest situation applies.” (Emphasis mine).  The Charter goes on to further define direct and indirect conflicts of interest.

It is clear that the Charter does not require a City officer to do anything other then declare a conflict of interest. While it would be interesting to know exactly what the conflict entails, the Charter does not require details. Nor should the person declaring a conflict have do disclose details. It is likely that any conflict will be intertwined in an official’s personal and professional affairs. Elected officials, especially those essentially donating their time, should not be required to reveal their private affairs. In addition, it is certainly possible that someone could in fact owe a professional duty that prohibits disclosure of the conflict details.  Indeed in this instance both VT Digger and the Free Press reported that the conflict was a professional one for Councilor Paul.  She is a CPA so it may well be related to her professional obligations in that capacity.

In 2008 when Deb Markowitz was Secretary of State, her office published a useful guidance on drafting a conflict of interest policy for municipalities called , “Drawing Clear Lines: Adopting Conflict of Interest Ordinances for Local Officials.” Not a bad place to start when looking at drafting an ordinance or even a charter change. Of even more interest is an article that Secretary Markowitz wrote in 1991 for the Vermont Bar Journal entitled “A Crisis in Confidence – Local Boards Under Fire.” I wish I could provide a link, but I couldn’t find a copy online that wasn’t behind a paywall. A few notable quotes include: “Questions regarding the ethical conduct of municipal officials is causing a crisis of confidence in local government.” “High ethical standards must be required for local government officials in order to ensure that governmental activities are conduced in the public’s interest.” “In Vermont, the general lack of guidance as to the specific ethical obligations of local government officials has left a void which is filled, haphazardly, by some local governments, and has left the public (and some local government officials) feeling as though local boards and officials may function without concern for ethical propriety beyond the basic legality of their actions.”

And that was all written pre-internet/social media and certainly did not factor into the equation today’s highly politicized environment. Throw those into the mix and you have, well Burlington……