Town Meeting votes to block paid town workers from seat on board as Hanson approves Selectmen restrictions
HANSON — Hanson approves Selectmen restrictions as new by-law will be added to the books preventing paid Hanson town employees from running for a seat on the Board of Selectmen.
The by-law extends to prohibit office holders from working as paid employees for one year after leaving office, grandfathering in those already elected.
Voters at special Town Meeting Monday approved by a vote of 58-48, the measure — warrant Article 25 — proposed by selectmen.
Wearing pink T-shirts emblazoned with “I am Article 25,” hand-written in fabric paint, Building Department Administrative Assistant Anne Marie Bouzan and a handful of other Town Hall employees, made a statement against the proposal from the audience.
Bouzan, also a union steward who ran for Selectman this spring, spoke vigorously against the article.
Proponents countered that the by-law was needed to ensure against potential bias, a tie vote on matters on which town employee/selectman could not vote, and as protection against “human nature.”
After Town Meeting adjourned, Bouzan expressed disappointment at the vote, but suggested she wasn’t through with the fight just yet.
“I’m a little disappointed,” she said. “I’m thinking that I still have time — they’re going to have to go through the state to make the by-law go through — and if we can appeal it somehow at that point I think I will.”
Selectman James McGahan said after the session that he understands it is already hard to fill some elected positions, but said the by-law is necessary to prevent potential conflicts of interest.
“We’re trying to be proactive in avoiding the problems that Hanson’s had in the past,” he said. “Hanson has a rich history of some inappropriate people in the wrong places. … Who’s going to police it? … The problem is human nature.”
He did say that he thought Bouzan would be an excellent selectman.
“Hopefully someday it’ll work out that she can do it,” he said. “I think she will.”
Bouzan had stressed during debate on the article, that she had consulted the State Ethics Commission before running for a seat on the Board of Selectmen.
“I informed her of my duties and my role as a town employee,” Bouzan said of a 45-minute phone conversation with a State Ethics Commission lawyer. “I told her everything about my position.”
The lawyer had, verbally and via email, informed Bouzan that she could serve as selectmen without conflict so long as she not participate in discussions or votes on matters in which she had personal financial interests, although she could participate in collective bargaining negotiations in her role as union steward.
“I could negotiate the town administrator’s contract because he is not my direct supervisor,” she said. “If you take tonight’s articles, I could have voted [as a selectman to place or recommend] on every single article on the warrant as printed.”
She then asked for an answer from the Board of Selectmen to a pointed question: “Why couldn’t someone that’s working for the town run as selectwoman for this town?”
Selectmen Chairman Bruce Young countered by asking if Bouzan had informed the Ethics Commission that she sits across the negotiating table from the town administrator during contract negotiations.
Moderator Sean Kealy then cautioned against getting bogged down in debate over the specific situation that gave rise to the article.
“I prefer to talk about this article on its own without getting into a rehash,” he said.
Resident Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett of 83 Bay State Circle noted that state ethics laws are very clear about conflicts of interest and asked Town Counsel Jason R. Talerman if the article is necessary and whether school district employees are included as “town compensated” positions covered by the by-law.
“Do you think this is redundant or is this something you think you’d recommend the town adopt?” she asked. “Can we get a list of who this impacts?”
Talerman declined to voice an opinion, but noted there are parts of the by-law covered by state laws.
“I’m really going to stay out of it,” he said. “For other relationships in this proposed by-law, that are not covered by the ethics law, but really just follow the practice of many communities, which really hold the office of the Board of Selectmen as something that shouldn’t commingle with any other office in the town.”
McGahan said school district employees were not included in the by-law. While Talerman said he’d have to look more closely at the regional agreement, but tended to agree with McGahan’s interpretation.
“There are a lot of incredibly good town and municipal employees that I trust,” said Joseph O’Sullivan of 625 West Washington St., urging the Town Meeting to vote against the article. “I would love to have their experience … in a variety of different offices in this town.”
John Norton of 31 Indian Path agreed, noting that out of more than 7,000 registered voters in town, it is already hard to attract people to the idea of running for public office.
“Anything that diminishes people wanting to get involved in town government, is a mistake,” Norton said. “There is no reason. We have the strongest state ethics [laws] in the country and a ton of conflict-of-interest laws that I’ve run into even in a non-compensated position. It’s just redundant, it’s silly and it seems to be aimed at a couple of people.”
McGahan agreed there are a lot of good people in town, but warned “all it takes is one person or a couple to do the wrong thing and really throw things in the wrong way.”
Resident Tom Dahlberg of 66 Hillcrest Road agreed with McGahan.
“We don’t need problems in Hanson,” he said. “In the 40 years I’ve lived here we’ve had our share of problems to resolve at Town Meeting. Tonight, we have an opportunity to keep a problem from happening. It isn’t one that might happen. Given the history of the human race, it’s a problem that will happen if we don’t pass this article. It’s just a matter of when.”
Talerman, who said there are varying versions of the proposed article in place across the state, but couldn’t say how many of the 351 communities in Massachusetts have them.
“It’s not uncommon to go beyond the conflict of interest laws and place limits on whether people can hold two elected positions or an elected and appointed [one],” he said.
A proposal to amend the article to allowing a minimum of one seat on the Board of Selectmen to be held by a town employee was declined.