“The basis of effective government is public confidence, and that confidence is endangered when ethical standards falter or appear to falter,” said then-Sen. John F. Kennedy in an April 27, 1957, address to Congress
With that guiding light as the beginning of his presentation, David Giannotti, Chief, Public Education and Communication Division, State Ethics Commission, brought to Mattapoisett’s public employees the latest information on “conflict of interest law” and “code of conduct.”
Giannotti, flew at about 30,000 feet for most of the voluminous information covered in his presentation, information that city and town employees must embrace and comprehend in order to perform their duties in a manner that is legal, safe, and lacking conflict.
There is a five-member, independent, nonpartisan agency comprised of three members who are appointed by the governor (only two may be from the same party), one appointed by the attorney general, and one by the Secretary of State. Their appointments are unpaid and last five years. They may only sit for one term without re-appointment. Major changes to the commission and the laws and requirements were made during the Seventies and again as recently as 2009.
The commission has three operating divisions: Public Education, Legal, and Enforcement. The group learned that they receive as many as 1,200 complaints a year. All matters handled by the commission are held in the strictest of confidence and anonymous complaints are also accepted.
Giannotti told the assembled that whether they are an employee, volunteer, or appointed board member, in the eyes of the commission they are all considered employees working on behalf of the town. With this stated, he said they all had to adhere to the same ethical standards.
Covering the issue of receiving gifts, Giannotti said that any gift with a value of $50 or more given for the promise to influence a public act was bribery; gifts or gratuities of that same value given for acts performed were considered accepting gratuities; and gifts given for $50 or more because someone holds an official position would be considered receiving gifts. All forms of gift accepting under those established monetary sums would be viewed as illegal.
There was some discussion about fine lines, where a board member might be personal friends with someone who is also seeking permits or positive decisions from the board the friend sits on. What if they went to a ball game together; would that be considered accepting a gift? Giannotti suggested that such a situation might be viewed as questionable and that before engaging in social situations where the board member would be receiving a gift, to check with the Board of Selectmen first. Better to err on the side of caution then be fined for doing something inappropriate.
The goal is to not only restrict influence pedaling, but also control even the appearance that the public employee could be improperly influenced in the performance of their duties.
Nepotism was also explained as restricting a municipal employee from participation in particular matters where he/she, their family, partner, or business organization affiliations has a financial interest. The commission viewed family members of the public employee as their parents, their siblings, their spouses, and their children.
On the topic of ‘code of conduct’ the state stipulates: a public official or employee shall not knowingly act in a manner that a reasonable person might conclude that he/she might act with bias. It further detailed such behavior as trying to secure privileges for his/herself or others, inherently coercive authority, use of official resources for private or personal use, disclosure of confidential information, and accepting inherently incompatible employment.
Political activities are also not allowed such as soliciting campaign support from colleagues, subordinates or constituents, campaign activities in public buildings, and use of public resources for political purposes.
To insure against divided loyalties, the commission mandates that public employees may not act on the behalf of or receive compensation from third party connections with anything of direct or substantial interest to the municipality.
Of course to every rule there are exceptions and those were also detailed to help the group understand that certain circumstances may not necessitate their recusing themselves or otherwise removing their expertise from a decision.
Giannotti gave Mattapoisett’s employees a full packet to take with them for future reference, which included website and contact information. The State Ethics Commission is for the general public also. You can contact them at www.mass.gov/ethics or call 627-371-9500 or 888-485-4766.
By Marilou Newell