What is a conflict of interest?

Friday February 15, 2013

Kudos to the members of the Dummerston Selectboard who refused to accept a letter of resignation from the board’s chairman, Lewis White, following a conflict-of-interest dispute at a meeting last week.

The board’s rejection is a formality, as White is not expected to return to the governing body in the few weeks remaining before his term expires. But officials contend their vote was a matter of principle, saying they don’t believe there is any reason that the five-year veteran of the Selectboard should have felt compelled to step down.

Last week’s developments came after months of disagreement about a ruling by the town’s Development Review Board. The applicants, a Schoolhouse Road couple seeking approval for a fence, deck and pool, have appealed the board’s rejection of their application. The DRB’s decision had prompted criticism from some Selectboard members, who declined to defend the matter in Environmental Court.

At a Feb. 6 Selectboard meeting, the dispute led to a heated discussion that included one resident questioning White’s ties to the highway department, which is led by his cousin, Road Foreman Lee Chamberlin.

White noted at the time that he had recused himself from any involvement in Chamberlin’s hiring. But also said he would leave the Selectboard if residents perceive a conflict of interest.

"If it’s seen that way, it’s seen that way," White said, adding "this will be my last meeting."

Fellow Selectboard members and residents attending the meeting, including the one who has raised the conflict-of-interest issue, implored White not to resign, saying they need his valued experience on the board. The other board members also defended White’s record, saying he has been above reproach, especially on highway-related matters.

White resigned anyway, believing he was acting "in the best interest of the town," according to the letter he delivered to the town office on Tuesday. He said his resignation would be effective retroactively to Feb. 7.

The four remaining Selectboard members -- Tom Bodett, Bill Holiday, Zeke Goodband and Steve Glabach -- penned a letter to the Reformer in support of their chairman.

They wrote that White had "bent over backward" to stay neutral on highway-related matters.

"We have witnessed White’s work with the Selectboard and consider his effort above reproach," the four wrote. "He is fair, dedicated, and industrious for the benefit of everyone in Dummerston."

At a special meeting Wednesday the board voted 4-0 to reject White’s letter.

"If we accept the resignation on these terms, we lower the bar of what constitutes a conflict of interest so far that no one will be able to serve," Bodett said.

We agree. In small towns like Dummerston, and throughout much of Vermont, the people who volunteer to serve have strong ties to their communities, including relatives, neighbors and close friends within the towns they serve. It’s not uncommon for one town official, political or otherwise, to have a relative working in another town department or serving on another board.

That in itself does not constitute enough conflict of interest to warrant stepping down from a governing body altogether. It is only when a decision directly involves or benefits a relative or friend that one must recuse him or herself from the decision-making process on that particular matter.

According to all accounts, White has acted admirably and "above reproach" in this manner. He had recused himself from any involvement in Chamberlin’s hiring, and Bodett said he has seen White "exercise more caution than the rest of us" on all other highway-related matters.

It’s unfortunate that one heated exchange at last week’s meeting was blown so out of proportion that White felt compelled to resign. He also said he does not expect to accept a Selectboard position if he is re-elected at the upcoming Town Meeting.

We hope he will reconsider. As Glabach said last week, "this is an inexperienced board," and White’s experience and leadership are needed.


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