CORRECTION: The original version of this editorial erroneously stated that voters returned Jane Patton to the Williamstown Select Board last month, when it should have read “last year.”
No excuse can be made for Williamstown Select Board member Jane Patton’s seeming disregard of the Commonwealth’s Conflict of Interest Law on Monday, June 12. Patton, whom voters returned to her seat for a fourth three-year term last year, pressed the Board to commit town monies to the Independence Day fireworks display held annually on the grounds of the Taconic Golf Club where she acts as general manager.
According to Patton, the event costs the club around $15,000, to which Williamstown has contributed up to $2,500 in the past. Reporting from iBerkshires quoted Patton as saying that after former Town Manager Jason Hoch resigned, the interim town manager, Charles Blanchard, did not respond to her requests to the town for funding.
Very likely, Mr. Blanchard understood the ethical breach he was being asked to participate in. Municipal employees may not engage in decisions affecting their town if they have a personal financial involvement.
A municipal employee may not participate in any particular matter in which he or a member of his immediate family (parents, children, siblings, spouse, and spouse’s parents, children, and siblings) has a financial interest. He also may not participate in any particular matter in which a prospective employer, or a business organization of which he is a director, officer, trustee, or employee has a financial interest. Participation includes discussing as well as voting on a matter, and delegating a matter to someone else.Excerpt from Massachusetts Conflict of Interest Law for Municipal Employees
The explanation goes on to express the insignificance of motive on the part of the municipal employee.
“A financial interest may create a conflict of interest whether it is large or small, and positive or negative. In other words, it does not matter if a lot of money is involved or only a little. It also does not matter if you are putting money into your pocket or taking it out. If you, your immediate family, your business, or your employer have or has a financial interest in a matter, you may not participate.”
Jane Patton did more than participate. She orchestrated.
And the rest of the Select Board, despite having passed their State Ethics tests, voted unanimously to allocate $1,000 of taxpayer money to the fireworks expensed. Public employees must complete the Conflict of Interest Law Education Requirements within 30 days of election or appointment to a state, county, or municipal position, and then every 2 years thereafter. The Board’s willingness to implicate itself in the clearest, most headslappingly obvious violation of public trust is a sign that much closer attention needs to be paid to any and all of the connections between our elected and appointed officials and their interests outside their roles as public servants.
Patton’s abstention from the actual vote is meaningless.
It’s quite possible that a vast majority of the residents of Williamstown would continue to support the move to partially subsidize — say, to the tune of 10 percent — a community-building event enjoyed by thousands of locals and visitors alike. I approve of the expenditures of public monies on this beloved extravaganza, which would be the envy of any town with twice the population that Williamstown has.
But that’s not the point.
There’s been a lot of talk in Williamstown about transparency and accountability in the last couple years. How about let’s start with the very basic elements of good government? If you are a town employee, don’t personally involve yourself in matters where you, your family, or your employer might have a financial stake. Even if you’ve gotten away with it before. That’s how corruption takes root. And right now, this town doesn’t need to deal with even the appearance of corruption. Particularly when the Massachusetts Ethics Commission has just opened an investigation into Lanesborough’s Planning and Zoning Board chair, Barbara Davis-Hassan, just down the road. The willingness of the Commission’s Enforcement Division to unleash an Order to Show Cause in that case should be a stark reminder that Beacon Hill does actually pay attention to what goes on in the Berkshires from time to time
Patton should have explained to her employers why her involvement in the matter was wholly inappropriate, and suggested that an owner address the Select Board. And then Patton should also have abstained from voting.
Now, the Select Board should consider rescinding its decision at the very next meeting. The Taconic Golf Club should eat the $1,000 for the 2023 fireworks show and go about it the legit way in 2024. And Patton should make a statement that clarifies her understanding of, and commitment to, Massachusetts’ Conflict of Interest Law going forward.