New ethics rules irk municipalities
The portion of the state's ethics overhaul that requires municipal employees take a test on conflict of interest regulations is a misguided unfunded mandate, local municipal officials say.
Some communities, including Westborough and Ashland, are challenging the requirement, taking their appeals to the state auditor.
Town employees and some elected officials must take the ethics test this year by April 2 and then once every two years after that.
Ethics reform was passed in June. It came after former House Speaker Sal DiMasi was indicted on corruption charges and then-state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson was charged with receiving cash bribes.
But the requirement for municipal employees smacks of a legislative over-reaction, local officials say.
Towns must keep track of who took the test and store the records for six years. In addition, all public employees are to receive a summary of the conflict of interest law. The town is supposed to verify that all applicable officials and employees have received the new conflict of interest law.
Mostly, municipalities are irked over the time and money the test will cost.
It all adds up to a big administrative headache for people like Framingham Town Clerk Valerie Mulvey.
In Framingham, 4,500 employees must take the test, Mulvey said.
She is among those who suggest the new regulations are sloppily written and not well thought out. The test is only available online and only in English, she said.
Administering the test is not the only problem local officials have with the new regulations.
The test itself leaves something to be desired, said John Petrin, Ashland town manager. He estimates the test could cost the town $10,000 to $20,000. About 500 workers must take it in Ashland.
The test includes 25 questions, 20 of which relate to state employees, Petrin said.
Crossing guards, bus drivers and cafeteria workers, among others, will have to ponder the question of illegal gratuities and what constitutes a legal relationship between a private sector business and public sector employee.
Town Meeting members, election workers, and ironically, the state Legislature, are exempt from taking the exam, Mulvey said.
Most of the questions deal with hypothetical conflicts of interest.
Should you take Patriots tickets from a contract bidder?
What happens if you're overseeing an environmental impact report on a property abutting your parents' home?
If employees answer incorrectly, they are given an opportunity to answer the question again. This happens until they get 100 percent right.
"I don't think there is anything here that truly is going to help anyone," said Petrin of the test's content.
He said it would be more manageable if the test was required only of department heads.
In Westborough, Town Manager Jim Malloy expects the test to cost his town $32,000.
Westborough Town Counsel Greg Franks said the test takes a "tremendous amount of time" for something that amounts to, at the end of the day, a "silly exercise."
"It's just aggravating," Franks said. "Most of the material is for state reps. It's a complete waste of time."
As far as Franks is concerned, municipalities are being punished for Beacon Hill malfeasance.
"I would agree wholeheartedly the state has a big problem with ethics. But I don't think municipalities do," Franks said. "It's sort of like misdirection. Beacon Hill they're the ones with the ethics problems."
Natick Town Administrator Martha White said the requirement for all employees to take the conflict of interest training amounted to another unfunded mandate.
White said she was told everyone associated with the municipal or school departments had to take the training and the test.
"Every employee must take it. It's a broad mandate members of committees and boards, election workers, summer help," White said.
She has spoken with town managers and administrators in other communities who share her exasperation.
"It's a nightmare for town managers," White said. "Around the state, they are up in arms. (The deadline for compliance) has already been postponed once. It's unworkable."
MetroWest Daily News staff writer Charlie Breitrose contributed to this report. Dan McDonald can be reached at 508-626-4416 or at firstname.lastname@example.org