Wilton Chair proposes ethics ordinance to keep Select Board members off water and sewer boards

  • Wilton Town Hall Ashley Saari

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/21/2021 4:22:14 PM

On Monday, the Wilton Select Board held a joint meeting with the town’s Water and Sewer Commissions; unusually enough, Selectman Kermit Williams sits as an elected member of all three boards, prompting Selectwoman Kellie-Sue Boissonnault to call for a town “ethics ordinance” to clarify procedure in such circumstances.

The boards were meeting to discuss billing for work done by the town on behalf of the Water and Sewer boards, but the discussion Monday began with Boissonnault requesting Williams address the possible conflict of interest inherent in representing both sides of the issue. She asked that Williams clarify on which board’s behalf he was speaking.

Williams said that because he is a member of all three boards, he would be speaking not on behalf of any particular board, but “on behalf of the town.” He said if the Select Board needed to take a vote on the matter, he would recuse himself, but said he shouldn’t have to make an “arbitrary distinction” about what board he was representing during a discussion phase.

Select Board member Matt Fish said he sided with Boissonnault on creating an ethics ordinance, saying it was “good governance.”

“I think the townspeople would like to see it,” Fish said.

The state already has an RSA in place which details incompatible elected offices. According to that law, a resident cannot hold the Select Board office as well as offices such as the town clerk, treasurer or trustee of the trust funds. Water and sewer boards are not among those boards the state considers to have inherent conflict with the Select Board office.

Boissonnault, in an interview Wednesday, said that while the Water and Sewer Commission aren’t on that list, there is still a potential conflict of interest.

“It is a very gray area,” Boissonnault said.

The town’s water and sewer departments operate on their own budget that is funded by its users. But, Boissonnault said, if there is ever a shortage for any reason, the town is liable.

“If you have a Select Board member that is also a commissioner, there can be a conflict of interest,” Boissonnault said. If there is a situation where the member on multiple boards has to recuse themselves, it creates the possibility of a deadlock vote between the remaining two Select Board members.

Boissonnault said RSA 31:39-A allows towns, with a vote of Town Meeting, to enact a local conflict of interest or ethics ordinance to help keep conflicting or incompatible offices from being held. Boissonnault said she would like to see the Select Board and Water and Sewer Departments held separate under such an ordinance.

She said, at this point, those are the only offices she sees as being incompatible that are not already covered by the wider state RSA.

“My main objective is Select Board cannot serve on another board,” Boissonnault said.

Williams said the authority of the Water and Sewer Commissions is granted by the legislative body, but said he’s unsure of what mechanism could be used on a town level to limit a resident’s ability to run for a position.

“New Hampshire, in general, historically has had a lot of protection for people’s ability to run for offices, and the idea of someone prohibiting someone from running for something, outside of what is prohibited by law, I’m not all that confident there is a mechanism to do that,” Williams said.

Williams said in his view, his position on all three boards does not have an inherent conflict of interest, which he said implies there is a personal benefit. He said having multiple roles, all of which serve the same entity – the town of Wilton – is a different matter.

“I see all these things as being, ‘I’m representing the town,’ and it is all of one piece in my opinion,” Williams said. “As a commissioner, I’m supposed to make sure the money is spent to the benefit of the ratepayers and system. In my mind, there shouldn’t be a conflict there. It’s all part of the town.”

Williams said if there was ever an instance where there was a vote, such as in the billing discussion between the three boards on Monday, he would recuse himself from voting as a member of any of the three boards he sits on. He said this should not be an issue.

“We’re way too small a town to have infighting. We have a relatively small number of employees and we should be looking for ways to work together and not looking for ways to fight with each other,” Williams said. “Like I said Monday, this is about the town, it’s about town infrastructure, it’s not two separate companies where it makes sense to have different points of view. We have too many things where we struggle to come to agreement. We need to find a compromise.”

 

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.


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