Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Avoiding The Appearance Of A Conflict

Select Board & Town Attorney decided to dodge transparency issue

The Amherst Select Board had the opportunity to make this conflict of interest issue go away last night but they took the easy way out:  avoidance.

The town attorney suggested that not openly acknowledging a potential "conflict of interest" didn't fall  within the domain of a branch of government titled "Division of Open Government."

Yeah, that's a hair only a lawyer could split.

So I have now filed a complaint with the State Ethics Division.  Let's hope he gives better legal advice to the Select Board this time around.

State Ethics Commission
Enforcement Division
One Ashburton Place, Room 619
Boston, MA 02108-1501

To Whom It May Concern,

I wish to file a formal complaint concerning an accidental violation of state ethics law — especially as it relates to the “appearance of a conflict of interest” — by Amherst Select Board Chair Alisa Brewer at the Select Board December 21 regular Monday night meeting (although at an unusual time). 

The five member Select Board voted unanimously to allow Interim Town Manager Dave Ziomek to sign a 3.5 year Strategic Partnership Agreement with UMass/Amherst, the town’s largest employer, that could be perceived as overly generous to UMass.

Chair Alisa Brewer shows up in the online data base of UMass employees although apparently she does not work directly for UMass.  Her husband Steven Brewer, however, is a full-time professor in the biology department. 

At that December 21 meeting she did not publicly announce her affiliation(s) with UMass prior to leading the discussion and then voting in the affirmative on the UMass Strategic Partnership (estimated value just over half million annually).

Back in September, 2007 (on or about 9/18/2007) I filed a complaint naming Alisa Brewer and Select Board member Rob Kusner, who was a professor at UMass, when they voted on an earlier version of the Strategic Partnership Agreement that gave UMass free effluent water for their power plant, when the previous year they had paid the Amherst water/sewer fund $38,0000 for it.

At the time both Select Board members made somewhat of an announcement of their affiliations with UMass, but neither had filed a disclosure form with the Town Clerk.  

Within a week of the 9/17/2007 meeting both had (retroactively) filed the disclosure form.  The Ethics Commission then found no violation had taken place since the Select Board members in question had made a public announcement prior to the discussion/vote and both had, eventually, filed a disclosure form with the Town Clerk.

Alisa Brewer’s disclosure form dated 9/25/2007 is still on file with the Town Clerk, but she clearly did not make the pubic announcement at the December 21 meeting acknowledging her potential conflict of interest.  

Although there were no members of the general public present at the meeting that night, all Select Board meetings are televised and live streamed by local cable access entity Amherst Media.

The town suffered a great loss back in September with the sudden death of Town Manager John Musante, so the Select Board has been far busier than normal over the past four months.  

Since I do not believe the lack of transparency was deliberate, I would simply ask the Ethics Commission to remind the Amherst Select Board how important it is for public officials to routinely avoid the “appearance of a conflict” with a quick simple public pronouncement prior to a discussion/vote.


Larry J. Kelley
596 South Pleasant Street
Amherst, MA 01002


Anonymous said...

So, Larry - is this a personal vendetta? It seems you have already cost the Town legal fees, and will now waste the Massachusetts taxpayers' money too in stirring the pot with the AG. Bringing bad publicity to our town and shi**ing where you eat. Keep up the good work. You and Ed are now officially on the same page.

Larry Kelley said...

If I offend only the Cowardly Anon Nitwits. I must be doing something right.

Or as the Air Force would say, being over the target generates plenty of flack.

Anonymous said...

The look on Connie's face is priceless. "Please God, make him stop!"

Walter Graff said...

Good for you Larry. Respect for ethics is a foundation of good and fair government. It's not an egregious violation, but one of those gateway moments that lead to weakening of rules and standards.

Anonymous said...

"Since I do not believe the lack of transparency was deliberate"

Look, everyone heard you. Now you are just grandstanding.

Anonymous said...

Just so this is not limited to "Cowardly Anon Nitwits", I believe you are making a mistake here. There is no "lack of transparency" here, except the one that you've conjured up between your ears. There is no gain to be made on behalf of good and fair government. To your credit, your own reporting recently on Ms. Brewer's past disclosures reveals that.

In and of itself, this is no big deal, except that it reflects on your judgement and your ability to maintain calm perspective on other matters in town. Since, almost by default, you have become one of the prime sources for news in town, that's important. I was hoping that you would realize that this is a very dead horse you are flogging here, but alas.

Larry, you have to know by now that we will read you whether or not you do stupid stuff like this.

Rich Morse

Larry Kelley said...

I do indeed Mr. Morse. And I would, with all due respect, offer your comment as evidence I was not "grandstanding."

Anonymous said...

Again with the name calling, Larry. Seems to me your blog would be rather sparsely populated without us ...

Larry Kelley said...

Well considering this post already has over 1,000 views and only 6 commenters (amazingly two of them taking the time to leave their names) yeah, that's a pretty good assumption.

But the point is, I suppose, the other 994 chose not to comment. But still came here anyway.

Anonymous said...

Is it pretty common for journalists to file conflict-of-interest complaints?
Isn't their goal to report the news (not to create the news)?
Did you, Larry, identify your own journalistic conflict of interest, that you are a UMass alum?

I note that Scott Merzbach correctly disclosed his own potential COI in a recent article.

Larry Kelley said...

It's pretty common for good journalists to act as watchdogs.

Anonymous said...

Kip Fonsh, serviing as both ARHS teacher, teachers union boss, and both local Leverett and Amherst regional school comittee members, commited a very egregarious breach of ethics and conflict of interest laws which allowed him to approve unions salarys, etc, at taxpayer expense, forcing out poor and disadvantaged homeowners,etc.
This is how serious a crime some " Blowhards" resting on university laurels have. become.

Anonymous said...

Only in the Republic of Amherst blog
Amherst, MA

Dear Publisher:

I wish to file a formal complaint concerning a violation of journalistic ethics — especially as it relates to the “appearance of a conflict of interest” — by journalist Larry Kelley.

Journalist Kelley regularly reports on news about UMass Amherst, without disclosing that he is an alumnus. Kelley shows up in the online data base of UMass alumni/ae.

Please ask him to fully disclose his relationship in all of his news articles and Op Ed pieces.

Yours truly,

The good people of Amherst

Larry Kelley said...

I'm not an elected public official negotiating a multi million dollar contract.

And the Publisher does not take seriously anything from a Cowardly Anon Nitwit.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not an elected public official negotiating a multi million dollar contract."

And neither are the members of the selectboard, as they don't do the negotiating.

Larry Kelley said...

Let me guess: you're a lawyer.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and you are casting about for wrongdoing when there clearly is none.

Larry Kelley said...

Clearly there is.

Eight years ago the state Ethics Division clearly said you need to file a disclosure form with the Town Clerk (even if it's AFTER the violation) and you need to announce the potential conflict AT THE TIME the discussion vote takes place.

Clearly Ms. Brewer did not announce her affiliation(s) with UMass AT THE TIME of the public meeting 12/21/15.

Anonymous said...

You still haven't shown that she has an affiliation with UMass.

Larry Kelley said...

Her husband is a professor.

Anonymous said...

To quote Ronald Reagan: "Well, there you go again."