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Things became testy at a Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting on Aug. 7 after one selectman refused to leave the room during a planned executive session from which she believed she was going to be unfairly barred. The issue centers around potential conflicts of interest when an elected official is also a town employee.
Tempers started to flare at the tail end of the meeting, just before the board was scheduled to go into executive session to discuss a collective bargaining agreement with a town union. At that time, First Selectman Christine Goupil began to read a letter emailed to the town’s legal counsel by Selectman Carol Walter, who is also a clerk in the Building Department. Walter’s letter asked for a legal opinion on whether or not Walter must be forced to recuse herself from executive sessions, if she must physically leave the room during the discussions, and if the meetings could legally continue if she did not recuse.
Town employees are represented by several different unions. The unions negotiate contracts and bring the proposed contracts to the BOS. The BOS can then accept, reject, or negotiate the contracts. Walter is a member of the clerical union.
Walter said she did voluntarily recuse herself from executive sessions when the clerical union contract was discussed, as well as when the supervisor union contract was discussed because her department head is a member of that union.
However, Walter said that she has been forced to leave the meetings when contracts for union with which she has no relationship were discussed in executive sessions during recent months.
In her letter to counsel, Walter wrote in part: “I have been told by Ms. Goupil that the meetings would not continue if I remained in the room.”
Walter wrote that she had left the room when asked. However, she also noted that fellow Selectman Phil Sengle had previously participated in discussions about and voted on police contracts while simultaneously serving on the Board of Police Commissioners. Walter said that when she pointed this out, Goupil said she couldn’t make Sengle recuse himself.
Sengle disputed Walters’ characterization of his participation.
“When I was a selectman, I absolutely did not participate in the police union contracts negotiations. I may have participated in the unanimous vote of approval when the final contract was presented to the BOS,” Sengle said.
Sengle was a member of both the Board of Police Commissioners and the BOS until he resigned from the police commission in early 2019. An opinion from Town Attorney John Bennet sent to the BOS shortly after the municipal elections in November 2017 stated that there was no conflict with Sengle serving on both the BOS and police commission.
At the Aug. 7 meeting, Goupil said she had received a verbal opinion that confirmed Walter should not participate in contract negotiations, but Walter said that unless she sees a legal opinion in writing she would not recuse herself from the executive sessions.
“I’ve never seen such delay tactics, and it’s not my problem,” Walter said, adding that negotiations have dragged on for some time so delaying the process for one more week would not be a big deal to her.
With Walter refusing to leave the room, the BOS ended the meeting without entering executive session. Several selectmen continued to trade personal barbs and the occasional expletive following the meeting until the members went their separate ways.
Walter spoke with the Harbor News after the meeting.
“I feel sidelined, left out, and disrespected. As a selectman, I have a duty to be there,” Walter said of the union negotiations.
Walter said that at press time she has not received any communication from the town counsel or labor attorney that she has to involuntarily recuse herself or the meeting won’t be allowed to continue.
“All I want to do is see it in writing. If that’s what it says, then I’ll gladly do so,” Walter said.
Goupil also clarified her position after the meeting.
“During the meeting, I raised the issue of whether it was appropriate for a BOS member to be involved in discussions about union negotiations and strategy when that board member is in one of the town’s unions. While this seems like an obvious conflict of interest, I have asked our labor attorney to review the issue and advise us. He is in the process of doing so currently,” Goupil said. “Pending that, I do not think it is appropriate to comment further.”
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