WVN #117- Selectmen's Ethics Problem
- Wayland Voters Network
October 23, 2005
Dear Wayland Voter,
As you know, WVN doesn't take positions on legislation and
candidates. We do take issue with activity that hinders
transparent, responsive government fostering maximum citizen
participation. The following represents the opinion of the author,
SELECTMEN SHOULD CONFRONT ETHICS ISSUE ---
FACT-FINDING, NOT FINGER-POINTING
Maybe the selectmen are in a delirium after belatedly signing an
agreement with developers of the proposed Town Center
project. They seem to have forgotten the difference between a
personal attack and a substantive issue.
When a Wayland resident asked the state Ethics Commission to
investigate whether Selectman Bill Whitney had a conflict of
interest when he negotiated the agreement while his real estate
development firm was doing business with one of the Town
Center development companies, the board's response was
swift, vitriolic and lacking in detail.
Public officials in such a position typically deny the accusation
and predict that appropriate governmental processes will deliver
vindication. Instead, Chairman Michael Tichnor simply attacked
some nameless political enemy.
"It is a mean-spirited and misguided effort to influence the
Special Town Meeting vote on the town center project, a project
whose approval should be determined on the merits and not on
the basis of personal attacks," Tichnor wrote in a "To Whom it
May Concern" statement issued to the press on Oct. 18.
"...Unfortunately, this tactic of attacking the credibility and
trustworthiness of elected and appointed officials has been
used before as a method of defeating certain important
town-wide initiatives. It simply cannot be tolerated."
On Oct. 21 that statement was reworked into a letter to the
Wayland Town Crier with the added assertion that Whitney had
disclosed the matter at a May 10 public meeting. The names of
all selectmen except Whitney appeared below. The letter was
post-dated to Oct. 24. Are we to assume that this is a draft,
though it isn't so marked, that will be discussed and voted on at
the Oct. 24 board meeting? (Attend or tune in to the Wayland
Channel beginning at 7 p.m. Monday and find out for yourself.)
By what authority did Tichnor issue the Oct. 18 statement?
(Tichnor was elected to the Board of Selectman, not to act as an
executive of the board. The chairman is chosen by the board as
a presiding officer.)
These are not trivial questions. Do selectmen feel they can
abandon established procedures when they get excited?
Whitney says he had been advised by town counsel Mark Lanza
that there was not even the appearance of conflict of interest.
If Whitney disclosed the matter at a public meeting on May 10,
why wasn't it mentioned in the minutes? Why didn't other officials
and members of the public who were at the meeting notice it?
Shouldn't somebody have said: "Wait a minute. Bill Whitney may
be the nicest and most honest guy in town, but this has the
appearance of a conflict of interest. It ought to be explained."
Officials routinely declare a potential conflict of interest in a
statement filed with the town clerk. Sometimes those statements
are written with the assistance of town counsel. Sometimes they
are read aloud at a public meeting.
Whitney said he was unaware that he should inform the town
clerk. Every elected and appointed official swears an oath to
uphold the law and is expected to be familiar with applicable
Why did this escape him, when Tichnor and other elected
officials filed disclosures on other matters recently?
During Whitney's time on the board, at least one other member
more than once recused himself and sat in the audience when
matters with a hint of conflict came up. Clearly, that sort of
selectman knows the meaning of the "Caesar's wife" standard of
being above suspicion.
Tichnor assumes that the complaint was timed to affect voter
behavior. That is possible. It is equally possible that the
information reached the citizen fairly recently and couldn't be
authenticated (with 26 pages of accompanying documents) any
earlier. A key real estate transaction identified in the documents
took place on Sept. 1.
A nationally known instance bears on matters like this. When
the Los Angeles Times reported well-documented allegations
that Arnold Schwartzenegger had groped women, the
newspaper was condemned for releasing the story shortly
before the election that made the former movie star the governor
of California. The newspaper replied: This was the soonest we
could get accurate information to the the public; knowing what
we knew, would it be right to tell the people AFTER the election?
In any case, the detailed Whitney complaint is pertinent to
concerns aired in recent weeks that the selectmen weren't
asking enough from the developers. Some of that concern was
expressed by other selectmen. If there was wide discussion
about avoiding a sweetheart deal for developers, shouldn't
voters know as much as possible about the people negotiating
the deal? Nobody is suggesting that Whitney stood to gain
personally. But any apparently cozy relationship may raise
legitimate questions in voters' minds.
This is not the first time that Wayland officials have attacked their
constituents when confronted with questions of legality. This is
getting to be a very bad habit.
If there is anything that "simply cannot be tolerated," it is public
officials' cavalier attitude toward the law.
Thank you for reading this WVN newsletter. Please forward it to
your friends and neighbors in Wayland. If they want to receive
their own copy, they can send an email to
waylandvoters@... and they will be signed up for the
listserv. Or, they can sign themselves up by sending a blank
email to: email@example.com.
Click reply and send after receiving an e-mail confirming the
Wayland Voters Network
Margo Melnicove and Michael Short, Editors