Carpenter may quit West Hartford council

Today’s Courant has an interesting, and well done, story about town council member Barbara Carpenter’s bid to become the next president of the West Hartford Education Association, the teacher’s union here.

Carpenter, a political independent, told the paper she’ll step down from the council if she wins the part-time union job. She’s a kindergarten teacher at Braeburn.

“There would be a conflict of interest if I were on the council and I was serving both groups. Ethically, it would be wrong for me to do that,” Carpenter told reporter Daniel P. Jones of the Courant, who deserves a nod of thanks for laying this story out completely.

There’s a chance someone else will win the teacher’s union job – Brenda Key, a third grade teacher at Duffy is trying to snag it, too – but if Carpenter wins it, the council faces an unusual issue: how to replace an independent? Normally, the members of council who hail from the same party pick a successor when someone resigns mid-term. But there are no other independents on the council, just six Democrats and two Republicans.

Pat Alair, the town’s deputy corporation counsel, told the Courant that anyone on the council will be able to nominate a successor as long as the nominee is not a registered Democrat. By state law, there can be no more than six members of any one part on the 9-person council.

That opens the door to all kinds of mischief and fun. I hope the Courant reports on it in detail.

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5 Comments

Filed under Barbara Carpenter, Hartford Courant, News, Politics, town council, Town government, unions, West Hartford Education Assocation

5 responses to “Carpenter may quit West Hartford council

  1. Yeah it’ll be interesting for sure.. my only question is with her current affiliation and engagement with the WH Teachers Union.. how come that’s not already seen as a conflict of interest since she is on a Town Council that considers funding for the schools.. does she recuse herself from budget votes? How can she engage in voting to accept or deny the education budget with that obvious conflict already present? By the way – I see that same issue conflict with Mr. Verrengia with regard to Police contracts and other police/budget matters.

    In any case the whole issue will be an interesting one to watch unfold. As far as bringing anything up to an ethics board.. hah! Town Council members sit on the ethics board, so is one going to bring a complaint about them to them? Your thoughts??

  2. Peter G

    In an article on the possible discussion of creating a full-time state legislature in today’s Courant, an ethics expert makes the important point that conflicts of interest are inherent in public sector employment (including elected office). It isn’t a question of whether such conflicts may arise but how they are addressed.

    It’s interesting that we talk about someone having a conflict of interest because they are in an elected office where votes may be taken that relate to the person’s employment, but we don’t apply the same rules in other contexts. Certainly it wouldn’t be considered a conflict of interest for city council members to vote on tax rates in West Hartford, even though it’s likely that all of them own taxable residential and/or commercial property in the town. In fact, we would say that it’s desirable that the individual who is making decisions about taxation represent the people being taxed.

    Now, if the public body on which the individual sat was going to vote on something that affected the individual directly, that might well be the point at which the conflict becomes not just inherent but actual and we would expect the individual to recuse themselves from voting on that particular issue.

  3. Mike

    Peter – The state ethics code prohibits an official from voting when they have a direct financial interest at stake. But they differentiate where everyone has the same financial interest – so voting on income taxes, when everyone pays them, is okay because you are not being treated any differently than any other like-situated individual. They even allow teachers in the legislature to vote on teacher pension issues because they will not benefit more than any other teacher from the changes. The prohibition comes when a science teacher serving as an elected official may vote on giving science teachers forgiveness of their student loans – or if Barbara Carpenter voted on a matter where the teachers union president was granted a salary bonus for serving two roles.
    So yes, we should assume elected (and appointed) officials will refrain from voting when they have financial issues at stake. But other issues can always arise. What if Officer Verrengia is disciplined by the police chief, and has the ability to vote on a matter that will directly impact the chief? Can he vote to “get back” at him or would he have to refrain and recuse himself? Or Mayor Slifka, who served in the office of the Secretary of the State – was he expected to recuse himself if the council voted on new voting technology? It’s a nebulous world, and anyone who looks close enough (and suspects conspiracies) can always find a potential conflict to explain a certain vote.

  4. One would hope though, that if a person had a conflict of interest (perhaps gaining influence or monetary gain, or gain for the special interest group they are involved in) that they would have the ethical sense to recuse themselves.. that is not always the case, unfortunately.

    I agree that everyone has some sort of conflict of interest – as a taxpayer you would share in the same burden of tax as everyone else that you are representing – as a union member I think that’s a bit different if you are in a position of voting for or against something that benefits the union.

    For me – that goes the same with a Town Councilor who is employed by a law firm that does business with the town or may reap benefits with contracts done with the town.

    Also I personally don’t think any town employee should be on a Town Council. It even puts you in potential conflict with your ultimate boss – the Town Manager or Superintendent of Schools.

    Just my two cents for what its worth.

  5. Peter G

    As discussed, and as Mike described very well I think, there is a big difference between the potential to have a conflict of interest (such as a public employee also serving in an elected position) and the actuality of a conflict (such as when said public employee votes on some issue that specifically affects him or her).

    The U.S. Supreme Court has said that public employees don’t give up their 1st Amendment rights simply because they are public employees. Though usually applied in the context of public statements that their bosses don’t like, I think it applies with equal strength to the right of public employees to run for office. Ethics rules can help to address when someone in public office should not vote, but there shouldn’t be a prohibition on who can run.

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