Monday, April 6, 2015
Culture of Indifference in Foxboro
AN INSIDE LOOK
By Bill Gouveia
When you are a municipal official or employee in Massachusetts, you are expected to adhere to strict ethical standards. You are required to complete an online Conflict of Interest training program once every two years and submit proof of same to the City or Town Clerk.
That training teaches you it is your responsibility to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. In other words, you do not have to actually violate the law to fall out of compliance.
All of which makes recent events in Foxboro that much more troubling.
Just last week Selectman Lorraine Brue, a candidate for re-election next month, was asked by the weekly Foxboro Reporter about a possible conflict. Brue’s campaign website had listed Foxboro Advisory Committee Chairman Tracey Vasile as the person to whom political contributions for Brue’s campaign could be sent.
The Advisory Committee is similar to the Finance Committee in other towns. It reviews all town budgets and warrant articles, then makes recommendations to Town Meeting. Those recommendations carry great weight in helping voters decide what passes, and what doesn’t.
Brue has a good understanding of the role of that committee. She served as its chairman prior to being elected selectman. She should know better than most the importance of maintaining objectivity as well as the appearance of objectivity. That goes for her current post as selectman as well.
So it is hard to understand her failure to recognize that the naming of Vasile to a campaign financial post would be seen by some as a problem. Selectmen regularly appear before the Advisory Committee to argue various budgets or articles. To have the chairman of that board collecting political donations for a sitting selectman’s campaign is – at the very least – a strong appearance of conflict of interest on both their parts.
Brue did the right thing and decided not to have Vasile be her campaign treasurer after the newspaper inquiry. But she was in no way regretful, insisting it would have been legal and proper for her to continue that official relationship.
In fact, Brue said it was “disappointing” that the person who tipped off the newspaper did not personally call her instead. She tried to spin the situation to her political advantage, saying she hoped this was not a sign of a “contentious election season”.
“We have only just begun to heal from the divisions caused by the casino issue during my last election in 2012,” Brue wrote in an email. Nice political touch – appealing to a large proven voter base of folks with anti-casino sentiments while at the same time appearing to ask for unity.
But Brue’s rhetoric does not match her past actions. A little over a year ago she was at the center of controversy for doing something similar to what she is now complaining about.
When the debate over locating a bar/bowling alley in Patriot Place was all the rage, Brue joined the other four selectmen in unanimously voting to send two selectmen to talk with the applicants and the Kraft Organization. But after the meeting, Brue had second thoughts and concerns that it might constitute an Open Meeting Law (OML) violation.
But rather than directly contact her other selectmen or wait for the next meeting, she called the town manager with her concerns. The decision to send two selectmen was essentially voided without another vote, leaving at least one board member to publicly question why the problem wasn’t brought directly to the board for action.
That sounds very similar to an individual going to a newspaper rather than calling the possible violator about a potential conflict of interest. You can’t have it both ways.
All this comes on the heels of recent OML violations by selectmen, preceded a few years ago by the school committee being cited for blatant violations of the same statute. Just weeks ago the Fire Chief appeared to violate campaign laws by soliciting signatures while on duty and in uniform on behalf of the Town Clerk, who coordinates the ethics training.
There needs to be some attitude adjustments in Foxboro. This can’t all just be coincidence. It almost appears there is a culture of indifference that exists within town government, and most townspeople appear indifferent to that.
They shouldn’t be.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.